HIV is not the only sexually transmitted infection that can shorten a lifespan. Recent studies reaffirm the links that common STIs like human papillomavirus (HPV) and even herpes simplex virus (HSV) have with various kinds of cancer, prompting many health care experts to stress the need for heightened awareness and testing.
Each year 14 million Americans are infected with HPV. It is so common that anyone who is sexually active will contract at least one strain of the virus in his or her lifetime. In total, 79 million Americans are living with the virus.
The virus can be transmitted through anal, oral, and genital contact with infected skin. Most strains do not present symptoms, but others can cause warts, which, if left untreated, could progress to cancer. Other strains may cause precancerous conditions like lesions or tumors. Most of those infected are unaware of the transmission until cancer develops.
Virtually all cervical cancers (which affect women) are caused by HPV, and different strains can put men at risk for other types of cancer as well. A 2011 study found that the proportion of oral cancers related to HPV increased from 16 percent in 1984 to 72 percent in 2004. Men who have sex with men are particularly prone to contracting HPV. An estimated 61 percent of HIV-negative and 93 percent of HIV-positive gay and bisexual men have anal HPV infections, compared to 50 percent or less of heterosexual men. Despite these numbers, few males receive the HPV vaccine, recommended up to age 21 for those who did not have it as adolescents. For instance, only seven percent of boys aged 13-17 were vaccinated for HPV in 2012, reports the President’s Cancer Panel.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that men who have sex with men are 17 times more likely to develop anal cancer—also caused by HPV—than heterosexual men. The rate among HIV-positive men is even higher.
The rise of HPV infection among Americans in all demographics alarms health experts. Leslie Kantor, the director of health media for Planned Parenthood, stresses the need for vaccinating children to as well as particularly vulnerable populations like LGBT and HIV-positive people, and says her organization’s clinics are places where one can receive the vaccine without judgment. These vaccinations prevent the strains of HPV that cause 70 percent of cervical cancers.
“HPV is an extremely widespread infection, and sadly the disease is rising in all populations, including the LGBTQ community,” Kantor says. “It’s vital that more information is available to parents so that early in their child’s life they can make an educated decision about the importance of having them vaccinated. It’s just as important that young people within LGBTQ community be aware that the disease is spreading to them, and that there is a simple preventative action that can be taken—getting vaccinated."
In addition to HPV, herpes is “one of the viruses most commonly related to carcinogenesis,” reports a study in the May 2013 issue of Biomedical Reports, which showed a “potential association” between herpes simplex virus type 2 and a higher risk of prostate cancer. The CDC reports that about one in six people aged 14 to 49 have genital herpes. Because of the sores that may manifest, the virus can also make people more susceptible to HIV infection.
Syphilis is another concern. Untreated, it can be fatal and it can also result in blindness and stroke. And it is making a comeback. According to the CDC, syphilis cases nearly doubled between 2005 and 2013—from 8,724 to 16,663. In 2013, men accounted for about 91 percent of all reported cases. The majority of patients were men who had sex with other men. This is particularly troubling since syphilis was nearly eliminated in the U.S. more than a decade ago.
Gay men are not the only at-risk group. According to the CDC, nearly half of the 19 million new STIs contracted each year in America are among youth. This trend is also seen overseas. A Public Health England report found that in 2013, people aged 15 to 24 years experienced 63 percent of chlamydia cases, 54 percent of genital warts, 42 percent of genital herpes, and 56 percent of gonorrhea.
Catherine Lowndes, a PHE scientist, says the rise in diagnoses among youth and gay men may be due to increased screening for sexually transmitted infections as well as improvements in the reporting of sexual orientation. But the numbers are still cause for concern.
“Sustained efforts to encourage people to regularly get checked for STIs means we are now finding and treating more infections, which is good news,” Lowndes noted in the report. “Nevertheless these data show too many people are still getting STIs each year, especially young adults and gay men."
PHE urges at-risk groups like gay men and sexually active people under the age of 25 to get regularly tested for STIs in order to receive yearly treatment and prevent the infection of others.