City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito's nonchalant announcement that she hasHPV offers a perfect opportunity to discuss the possibility of schools vaccinating all children against the virus, said Dr. Audrey Buxbaum, a partner in Downtown Women OB/GYN.
Countries that systematically vaccinate all schoolchildren have lower rates of HPV infections than in the U.S., where 80% of all adults get one of the HPV strains at some point in their lives and where vaccination rates are much lower. "You're vaccinating to prevent the potential of cancer years later," said Buxbaum, noting that HPV vaccines also help to reduce the likelihood of oral and anal cancers associated with certain strains of HPV. "The more we do to destigmatize HPV, the better," she said.
HPV screenings done during pap smears (they are two separate tests) only target the dangerous strains. If a subsequent biopsy, called a colposcopy, reveals significant cervical changes "we treat the abnormal cells" by excising or cauterizing them or freezing them off, Buxbaum explained.
Physicians don't typically test for "low-risk HPV - those are the strains with genital warts and they're not associated with cervical cancer," said Buxbaum. HPV can remain dormant in the body and emerge years later, much like any other virus, she noted. "I have patients in monogamous relationships who may have a reactivation of an HPV infection they got 30 years ago," she noted. Most of the time, HPV is nothing to worry about. "It's persistent HPV year after year that is a risk factor for cervical cancer," she said.
The good news? "It takes a long time for cervical cancer to develop," said Buxbaum, noting the important role pap smears have played in diagnosing disease early, when it is most treatable.