Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association: So what is HPV anyway?

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Approximately 12,000 American women will learn they have cervical cancer this year, and about 4,000 will die from an advanced form of the disease. January is Cervical Health Awareness Month, and it is critical to know about the importance of the Pap test as a screening tool for cervical cancer and about vaccines that further can reduce the burden of this devastating disease. It’s important to remember that cervical cancer is a preventable disease — as long as it’s caught early enough.

Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association

This monthly column about health issues publishes on Mondays in the Steamboat Today. Read more columns here.

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Suzi Mariano

What is HPV?

HPV is human papillomavirus. HPV is a common virus — more than half of sexually active men and women are infected with HPV at some time. At any time, there are approximately 79 million people in the U.S. with HPV. Some types of HPV may cause symptoms such as genital warts. Other types cause cervical lesions that, throughout a period of time, can develop into cancer if undetected. However, most people have no symptoms of HPV infection, which means they have no idea they have HPV. In most cases, HPV is harmless and the body clears most HPV infections naturally.

Who is at risk for HPV?

Anyone who is having (or ever has had) sex can get HPV. HPV is so common that nearly all sexually active men and women get it at some point in their lives. This is true even for people who only have sex with one person in their lifetime.

What should I know about HPV and cervical cancer?

Most women with an HPV infection will not develop cervical cancer, but it’s very important to have regular screening tests, including Pap and HPV tests as recommended. Cervical cancer is preventable if precancerous cell changes are detected and treated early, before cervical cancer develops. Cervical cancer usually takes years to progress. This is why getting screened on a regular basis is important; screening usually can catch any potential problems before they progress.

What is the difference between Pap and HPV tests?

A Pap test is a test to find abnormal cell changes on the cervix (cervical dysplasia) before they have a chance to turn into cancer. Unlike Pap tests, which look for abnormal cervical cell changes, an HPV test can detect “high-risk” types of HPV. “High risk” types of HPV can lead to cervical cancer and this test helps healthcare providers know which women are at greatest risk.

Who should get the HPV vaccine?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends routine HPV vaccination for males and females ages 9 to 12, with “catch up” vaccination for those ages 13 to 26. Being vaccinated against HPV makes it much less likely a woman will develop cervical cancer or have precancerous cervical cell changes. It also protects men and women from other cancers and genital warts. HPV vaccines don’t protect against all types of HPV, though, so women need to continue having Pap tests and, as appropriate, HPV tests even after being vaccinated for HPV. The vaccine is extremely safe and effective.

Protect yourself or your family from cancers caused by HPV. Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association offers the HPV vaccine for $21.50 for uninsured and underinsured individuals. Also, get your Pap test regularly at our affordable and accessible Community Health Center. Call the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association in Craig at 970-824-8233 or in Steamboat Springs at 970-879-1632 to make your appointment.

Information provided by the National Cervical Cancer Coalition and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Suzi Mariano is the director of communications for the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association.

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