What is HPV?
Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is one of the most common infections affecting sexually active people worldwide. And South Africa is no different: HPV affects approximately one in every four women.
‘While the incidence of HPV infection is high, it is important to understand the difference between infection and disease,’ says Dr Izak Loftus, a histopathologist at Mediclinic Vergelegen. ‘HPV is a virus, not in itself a dangerous disease. But if left unchecked, it can ultimately lead to cervical cancer.’
There are more than 120 different types of HPV, each with a unique genetic sequence, these types are divided into the two categories:
– Low Risk (low-oncogenic potential)
– High Risk (high-oncogenic potential)
The majority of HPV types are low in cancer potential, often resulting in non-aesthetically pleasing warts. In fact, most women will be clear of low risk HPV types within one to two years after infection through their natural immune process. But as Loftus explains, it is the cases of persistent infection by high risk types that are a cause for concern.
‘There are about 15 HPV types that are classified as high risk,’ he says. ‘Precancerous lesions can occur, which can lead to disease. Types 16 and 18 are notorious and account for almost 75% of cervical cancer cases. This is why it is so important for women with persistent infection to seek medical advice.’
Loftus adds that while a long window period between HPV infection and developing cancer does exist, other factors also play a role.
‘The development of cancer in persistent HPV cases can occur anywhere from 10-20 years after initial infection. But other factors like immune status and smoking can also have an effect.’
So what are the solutions as far as prevention is concerned?
‘The same rules for any other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) apply,’ says Loftus. ‘In addition, cervical screening has also had a massive impact on diagnosing women with persistent infection. The administration of vaccines against the most common and dangerous HPV types has also had a massive effect on the prevalence of HPV infection.’