Understanding HPV

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Biology 103
2005 First Paper
On Serendip

Understanding HPV

Iris Mejia

The process of discovering viruses begun in 1883 with Adolf Mayer, who sought the cause of a particular disease but was left without an explanation (1). His observations were limited to the existing technology, therefore he could only hypothesize that miniscule bacteria caused the disease. This hypothesis was proven incorrect in 1935 by Wendell Stanley, who did further study on the same disease (2). The disease was caused by a virus, which previously could not be seen. A virus is an infective agent that contains a protein coat surrounding RNA or DNA that can only reproduce within a host cell (3). Once this discovery was made many diseases with unknown causes were thought to be affected by viruses such as MS and cancer. This assumption limited the search for their respective cures. MS was found to be a neurological disease but 15% of human cancers worldwide, like cervical cancer, are still linked to viruses (4). The virus that causes the carcinogenic progression in cervical cancer is the Human Papilloma Virus, which I will explore to discover how it affects men and women differently.

The Human Papilloma Virus is a papovavirus, which consists of double stranded DNA and is transmitted sexually. It comes in hundreds of forms that affect the body in numerous ways. Current observations show that some strands of the virus can cause warts, while others remain latent in an individual for long periods of time without any noticeable differences in the vaginal/penal area but some of the latter can cause cervical changes that lead to cancer. Studies have shown that 90% of cervical cancers are due to HPV infection (5). HPV can infect males and females but only lead to cancer in women. Cervical cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in women worldwide (6). College aged women have the highest prevalence of HPV ranging from 10-40% (7) so it is important to question why many college women have not heard of this disease or are misinformed. An explanation can be sought by looking at media coverage. Even though there has been a lot of research done in HPV, 50% of HPV stories are missing important information, such as not stating that condoms are imperfect at blocking this infection (8).

HPV research shows that there are many factors that can change the risk of acquiring an HPV infection but the greatest is sexual behavior. A study conducted between 1990 and 1997 with 444 women with undetectable HPV stated that "more than one third of sexually experienced young women who are not infected with HPV become infected during a 2 year period (9)." This is more than a 33% likelihood of HPV infection. The study showed that smoking increases the risk of HPV infection whereas condom use did not significantly reduce the risk of infection. The significance of the latter is that there may not be any method to reduce the risk of being infected with HPV except abstinence. If women are sexually active how can they protect themselves from this? In order to reduce their risk, women can limit their number of sexual partners and the frequency of intercourse, have regular pap smears and good hygiene, and stop smoking (10). The study mentioned earlier in the paragraph, concluded that women can lower their risk of HPV infection by increasing the length of time they know their partner before initial intercourse. Is there a problem with this way of lowering risk? HPV is nearly undetectable in men so even given time to get to know their partner women would be unaware of the risk of acquiring HPV from their partner. This leads to what men can do to lower their risk for acquiring and transmitting HPV.

Although, HPV seems to affect women more dramatically then men it is still a reality in men's health. Men can unknowingly be carriers of a virus that can change women's life drastically; therefore, he has as much power and responsibility as women to decrease the spread of HPV. What can men do to protect themselves? Based on a study group conducted between 1985 and 1993 of 1,913 men, circumcision may lower the risk of transmitting and acquiring HPV by 60% but will not protect from infection (11). Uncircumcised men have a higher chance of acquiring an STD than circumcised men (12). The foreskin, which is found in uncircumcised men, is a flap of skin that covers the penis. It can be an entryway for many diseases including HPV. This is not a recommendation to men to opt for circumcision, but a fact that needs to be pointed out so that men can understand their risks. Men can decrease their risks and protect themselves from HPV by limiting the number of sexual partners and knowing their partners' current health. Since HPV is detectable in women, a man can request his partner to perform a pap smear, which is usually the first step to discovering HPV.

HPV testing is done after abnormal cells have been found during a pap smear in a woman's vagina or cervix. Further testing, includes a colposcopy and possibly an HPV DNA test. HPV results are grouped into mild, moderate or severe depending on the lesions on the cervix. Moderate and severe lesions are at really high risk of developing to cervical cancer. Currently there is no suggested way of preventing or treating HPV for neither men nor women, but men treated for clinical studies have resulted in no change in a woman's recurrence of HPV. Women with moderate to severe lesions can be treated by a variety of methods such as lasers, but it all depends on each individual case.

The way HPV affects individuals may be an important reason why there is not more emphasis on cure and prevention. It can dramatically affect women's lives while posing minimal treat to men. How many people does a disease need to affect to receive attention?


1) Campell, Neal. Biology. California: Benjamin Cummings, 2002.
2) Campell, Neal. Biology. California: Benjamin Cummings, 2002.
3)Merriam Webster Online Dictionary, Dictionary home page.
4) Campell, Neal. Biology. California: Benjamin Cummings, 2002.
5) Lowy, Douglas. Genital Human Papilloma Virus; Proceddings of the National Academy of Sciences of The United States of America, Vol. 91, No. 7.
6)Center for Disease Control, HPV information.
7) London, S. Acquiring New Partner is Linked to Increased HPV Risk among Young Women; Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, Vol. 35, No. 3.
8)WebMD, HPV Information.
9) London, S. Acquiring New Partner is Linked to Increased HPV Risk among Young Women; Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, Vol. 35, No. 3.
10) Hollander, D. Human Papilloma virus Infection, Benign Lesions have different Risk Factors; Family Planning Perspectives, Vol. 33, No. 6.
11) Lowy, Douglas. Genital Human Papilloma Virus; Proceddings of the National Academy of Sciences of The United States of America, Vol. 91, No. 7.
12)WebMD, HPV Information.

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