HPV: Preventive Measures
BY Neal Broverman
April 25 2012 12:00 AM ET
When it comes to the cancer-causing human papillomavirus, or HPV, young women with HIV may not be that different from their HIV-negative sisters.
HPV, the most common sexually transmitted infection, spreads through oral, genital, or anal contact and can sometimes lead to cancer. It's long been assumed that most HIV-positive women also carry HPV's particularly dangerous strains, which often cause cervical and oral cancers. But a recent study from the University of Cincinnati found that many of the young HIV-positive female participants did not have those HPV strains and thus could benefit from the HPV vaccine. A recent report on the findings by the National AIDS Treatment Activist Project advocated the same thing.
That means HIV-positive teen girls and young women could soon be strongly encouraged to receive the vaccine in the form of a shot of Gardasil or Cervarix (a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention panel has recommended that 11- and 12-year-old boys receive the vaccine as well). It's important for people to be vaccinated as young as possible, say physicians, as the risk for HPV increases as people age and become sexually active or increase their number of sexual partners.
Knowing that, University of Cincinnati researchers focused on very young women in their study'the average age was 21, and many subjects were in their teens. Only about 15% of the women studied tested positive for HPV types 16 and/or 18, the strains known as cancer-causers. Compared to women of other races, African-American women appeared more susceptible to carrying the dangerous HPV strains, as were those with high HIV viral loads. Those women who had vaginal sex within three months of the clinical trial were also more likely to have HPV types 16 and 18.
It's important to remember that the findings don't mean HIV-positive young women should be afraid of sex. Rather, it serves as a reminder to talk to your doctor or health professional about HPV, cancer, and preventive measures you can take against both.
Persistent and sustained HPV infection is the largest risk factor for cervical cancer, according to medical professionals. HIV and other disorders that suppress the immune system increase the risk too, as does smoking.
If you're concerned about HPV or cancer, ask your doctor for a Pap smear, which involves scraping cells from the cervix and examining them for troubling signs. While the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recently released new guidelines that say women under the age of 21 should not receive Pap smears'since the chances of cancer are so slim'that recommendation is for those without compromised immune systems, which HIV-positive women have.
While no discussion involving cancer is ever fun, there is some good news. Thanks to the new health care reform law, more comprehensive preventive care services will be available with no out-of-pocket costs. The changes go into effect August 1 and include testing for HPV as well as HIV counseling.