HPV symptoms and effects may differ between men and women
The human papillomavirus (HPV) is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections in South Africa, with roughly 80% of sexually active people infected with a strain of HPV at some point in their lives. Not all of those infected, however, will experience HPV symptoms.
Spread through sexual intercourse and skin-to-skin contact, HPV infects both men and women, though some of its effects are different. There are more than 100 types of the virus and roughly 40 types affect the genitals, with some causing warts and some linked to various cancers.
“There is a higher prevalence of HPV in men in South Africa, but women are more susceptible to complications and malignant transformation as a result of infection, and women are more often symptomatic than men,” says Dr Avril Moodley, obstetrician and gynaecologist at Mediclinic Midstream in Pretoria.
HPV symptoms and effects in men
The majority of men infected with HPV experience no symptoms and the infection clears with time. However, for men who do experience symptoms, genital warts on the penis or anus are most common. These can be single or can appear in groups of cauliflower-shaped bumps of varying size and can be either flat or raised.
Certain types of HPV can cause penile and anal cancer in men, and oropharyngeal cancer (a throat cancer) is associated with HPV for both sexes.
HPV symptoms and effects in women
Though many infected women do not experience symptoms, they are more likely to than men. They may suffer from genital warts on the vulva, vagina and anus, and certain types of HPV can cause cancer of the cervix, vagina and vulva, says Dr Moodley. “The cervix is biologically more vulnerable to malignant transformation than the penis or anus in men, making women more susceptible to the disease.”
According to the Cancer Association of South Africa, cervical cancer is the second-most prevalent cancer affecting women in South Africa and is not hereditary . Even though cervical cancer may occur spontaneously, biopsy results show that HPV is the cause in the vast majority of cases.
HPV does not impact a woman’s fertility, though in rare cases a mother may pass it on to her child at birth.
Prevention and screening
There is no screening test to detect HPV in men or women who show no symptoms, and for both sexes, cancers develop slowly and diagnosis may not happen for many years after the initial infection by HPV.
For women, regular cervical screening and pap smear tests can detect abnormal cells before cancer develops.
In South Africa, the Gardasil vaccine is recommended for girls and boys from age nine to 26 and protects against two of the most common cancer-causing HPV types and two more which are responsible for 90% of genital warts cases.
“Vaccinating both boys and girls can reduce the transmission of the virus and thus decrease the burden of disease significantly in both men and women,” Dr Moodley advises.