On International Women’s Day, It’s Your Life (a campaign organised by the National Cancer Society Malaysia (NCSM) and Merck Sharp & Dohme (MSD) Malaysia) launched a new video series that sheds light on the human papillomavirus and the steps that can be taken to prevent it.
It features Professor Dr Woo Yin Ling (Consultant Gynaecological Oncologist, University Malaya Medical Centre) and Dato’ Dr Saunthari Somasundaram (President and Medical Advisor, NCSM) – two charismatic women who champion women’s health issues. These experts share their insights on the viral infection and will continue to explain more in upcoming episodes, including the HPV vaccine and common misconceptions.
Here’s what we learned about HPV from the first episode:
- There are 200 types of HPV – 14 types are associated with cancer and can be prevented if we get vaccinated and go for screening.
- It affects both men and women.
- HPV is an infection not a disease in itself, so there is no treatment for the infection per se.
- It is so common that nearly all sexually active people will get the virus at some point in their lives.
Pop Quiz: What is the most common STI in the world?
It’s actually HPV.
The human papillomavirus, or HPV in short, is the most common sexually transmitted virus in the world among both men and women. There are more than 200 strains of the virus, which can cause genital infections (affecting the vulva, vagina, cervix, rectum, anus, penis, and scrotum), as well as infect the mouth and throat. It is so common that an estimated 4 out of 5 sexually active adults will get HPV at least once in their lifetime.
Does that mean it’s harmless?
There is no cure for HPV, with a large number of the virus being able to develop into cancer. High-risk HPV causes approximately 99% of all cervical cancers, and can also lead to vulva, vagina, penis, anus, mouth, and throat cancer. There are two types of low-risk HPV, which can cause genital warts, but most people with the virus show no symptoms or health problems – the infection usually clears up on its own.
How does one get HPV?
HPV spreads through any sexual contact, including skin-to-skin and oral sex. However, it is not transmitted through bodily fluids, such as saliva and semen, so you can still get the virus without having sex. A condom can reduce the risk of HPV, but only if it covers the infected area. If it doesn’t, the virus can still spread by coming into contact with any mucous membrane (such as the mouth, lips, anus and parts of the genitals) or with a tear in your skin.
How can we prevent it?
Pap smears and HPV tests are only available for those with a cervix, but the vaccine can prevent everyone from contracting high-risk HPV and low-risk HPV. Go for regular checkups as most people with high-risk HPV don’t show any signs of the infection until it develops into more serious health problems. It can take years for the cancer to develop, but these abnormal cells can be detected and treated before that. It is also important to know if you have HPV before passing it to any of your partners. Please be cautious of the virus, even if you’ve only had one partner or been in a long-term relationship. Stay safe!