U.S. Ignores HPV Threat
There is a virus, which is at the center of a raging pandemic. The federal Centers for Disease Control estimates that almost half the population of the U.S. is infected with this virus within a few years of becoming sexually active. It is transmitted easily during the most casual of sexual interaction and overpowers the body's natural immune system allowing itself to replicate. Infection often leads to anal, cervical and many forms of head and neck cancers.
The scariest thing about this virus is that a majority of people who are infected don't know it, so the spread is rapid like a wildfire.
This all sounds like something we've heard before. But it's not HIV. It's called Human Papillomavirus (HPV).
Medical researchers first isolated HPV in 1956. In more recent years, HPV has been identified as the most infectious of all of STDs. Condoms don't even provide sufficient protection, since transmission only needs skin-to-skin contact.
This accounts for the staggering statistics. The CDC reported only a few months ago that up to 80 percent of Americans are infected. Of this group, only a small percentage will ever exhibit symptoms.
In fact, the only symptom that points to HPV are warts or other growths on or around the genital area. It should be noted that the CDC includes anal, penile, cervical and throat cancers as other indications of HPV. But, because of the serious nature of these illnesses, this is a bit like saying that a heroine overdose is a symptom that a person has a substance abuse problem.
"History shows us that a disease or condition has to have an eyebrow-raising body count before we sit up and take notice, "Dr. Alice Fitzsimmons of the University of Nebraska School of Medicine has said about HPV. "Not meaning to turn this into a feminist issue, but the fact is that, up until now, this has been known as a virus that only effected women, so it didn't get the attention of the press and our politicians."
Fitzsimmons is one of the many medical researchers who are trying to get more press attention as well as alert the medical community to the seriousness of the problem. "We can get more men and women vaccinated and further research into blocking the development of cancer in those already infected," she said. "But that takes funding."
Vaccination is really the only defense against the spread of HPV. Canada has taken the lead. All boys in grades 5 to 9 are now going to be included in the group of children receiving free vaccinations against HPV in schools in the western province of Alberta; girls have long been eligible.
The vaccine is delivered in three injections spread out over a number of days. Without the second and third shot, the first one is useless. Unfortunately, a survey of clinics across the U.S. released in July reported that less than half of the girls who received the first injection followed up to complete the cycle.
Vaccine As Media, Political Football
"The injection hurt about as much as a flu shot," said Cassidy, a 19 year old from Austin, Texas. "It was nothing. I feel a sense of relief. I never met my grandmother because she died of cervical cancer before I was born. I won’t have to worry so much."
Texas has become a battleground for those in favor of widespread vaccination and opponents who believe that the vaccine does more harm than good. In 2007, Republican Rick Perry became the first governor to mandate that all schoolgirls receive the vaccine. The executive order immediately came under fire when the media reported that the vaccine’s manufacturer had contributed to his campaign.
A few months later, the Texas Legislature overruled Perry’s mandate. In the 2011 GOP presidential debates, the HPV vaccine became an unlikely political lightening rod when his opponents unexpectedly lambasted him for his executive order.
Then the whole controversy took a decidedly weird turn when Rep. Michele Bachmann described an encounter with a woman who told her daughter suffered from mental retardation after receiving the vaccine. The medical community immediately stormed in to counter Bachmann’s allegation.
The fallout from Bachmann’s comments, however, continues to reverberate, most recently on Katy Couric’s daytime talk show. On Dec. 4, Couric gave plenty of airtime to a group of mothers who claimed that their daughters were severely harmed by the vaccine, including one who died. Couric interviewed only one medical expert.
After being slammed for bias in favor of unscientific, unfounded and conspiracy-fueled theories, Couric issued a mea culpa several days later. But the damage to widespread HPV vaccination, experts believe, can be counted in the number of people who will come down with related cancers and other illnesses because of the phobia about the vaccine.
HIV & HPV: Double Whammy
For those who are co-infected with HIV, the HPV issue becomes more urgent.
Due to immune suppression, HPV-related cancers will metastasize more quickly and are more difficult to treat. In lab tests, HIV and HPV seem to assist each other in replicating on the cellular level, thus making both viruses hard to control.
Over an extended time, the antiretroviral "cocktail" of meds appears to control the spread of HPV through the body. But for pozzers, vaccination is the only defense.
This story is part of our special report titled "Living Well with HIV." Want to read more? Here's the full list.