Although I can't recall the exact content of sex education back in middle school or the more recent events of high school, I do recall that we did discuss sexually transmitted diseases in depth. Logically so, given that they're viewed as the medieval key hoped to keep chastity on lock. Despite the use of herpes, chlamydia, and HIV as a scare tactic to ward off pre-marital penile to pussy penetration because let's face it -- that's the only thing it's stopping -- the one STI that we hadn't covered was Human Papillomavirus, or HPV. And although my mom had made mention of it and my getting vaccinated, I knew nothing of this virus outside the fact that there was now a vaccine to tame certain strains.
With little awareness of HPV, I never followed up with the second and third shots in the vaccination series -- rendering it useless to my sexual health. Although 13 and sexually active, I never thought twice about going back for those shots or that virus until I contracted HPV in my early twenties (an age range that has been statistically proven to see an influx in the virus). I wouldn't go as far as saying it's nearly as common as a common cold but, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, almost every person who is sexually active will get the virus at some point in their life.
After confirming that I had the virus with a colposcopy, my doctor assured me that this was common amongst women my age. Furthermore, I was not a unicorn being hunted down by a cruel existence but simply that it had to be monitored and would require me coming in twice a year now instead of once until it went away completely. However, the stigma surrounding the term "sexually transmitted" disease, infection, or anything related makes it difficult to hear any of that bedside manner -- particularly when it's happening to you.
Sadly, even now, I feel uninformed about what's going on with my body. Off the top of my head, I couldn't tell you what strain I carry, just that whatever strain I've got raised red flags for the future of my sexual health due to the increased risk of cervical cancer.
In the name of staying educated with my own body and making sure you, my fellow sis, are educated as well here are some important things you should know about HPV. Plus, I reached out to certified Family Medicine MD and General Preventive Medicine Trainee at Johns Hopkins, Dr. Wilnise Jasmin, to be sure we were both getting the best information possible.
What You Need To Know About HPV
What’s the 411 on HPV?
Dr. Jasmin informs us that "the Human Papillomavirus is a term used to describe a group of over 100 different virus strains." Papilloma is a reference to a type of tumor that is typically benign and "grows in a finger-like projection from a body surface." In fact, Dr. Jasmin adds that papillo is a Latin root word that translates to "finger-like" or "wart-like." While "the Greek suffix -oma means forming tumors or masses."
Getting a call back for a colposcopy, a test where your doctor will examine your cervix, doesn't necessarily mean that you have cancer or warts. It may simply mean that you're carrying strains that put you at high risk of cervical cancer, along with several other types of cancer that include cancer of the mouth, vulva, vagina, penis, or rectum.
HPV Is a Numbers Game
The many various strains of HPV could likely be a featured numerical algorithm in the Matrix, or at least that's the way it feels. Slight exaggeration? You decide for yourself, the known strains of HPV include types: 6, 11, 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52, and 58. These are the strains that the current vaccine (9 Valent) works to keep at bay and the ones that we know the most about. Of those, the low risk strains have been identified as type 6 and 11 -- the two associated with and likely the cause of warts. The remaining strains are high risk, one of which I have, and they're linked to the cancers that I mentioned just before we arrived here.
Don’t Get Caught Slipping
Unlike other sexually transmitted infections, the human papilloma virus is one that has a vaccination to protect us against it or at least a handful of HPV types. This vaccination is known as Gardasil, but it's p.c. name is 9 Valent.
You can get this vac as young as 11-12; in fact Dr. Jasmin says it's recommended that you take your children to get the vaccination according to these CDC standards. For those who have missed that window, don't panic, just schedule an appointment with your physician to get vaccinated! Dr. Jasmin says that the United States Food and Drug Administration upped the age not too long ago, approving women and men from the ages of 27 through 45 to get vaccinated. Previously, the vaccination was only considered for those ranging in ages from 11 to 26.
Dr. Jasmin tells us that even if you've already contracted HPV, it's still recommended that you get the vaccination as it will protect you from the development of a new strain. She further adds:
"All women, men, and gender non-conforming individuals ages 45 and younger should be vaccinated against HPV. If they do not have a primary care provider, they should contact their local or state health department to find a location that is able to provide them with the vaccine. A primary care provider can help ensure that you receive the appropriate screens at the correct intervals based on your individual risk factors."
Being Diagnosed with HPV: Next Steps
If you've already been diagnosed, you should absolutely not freak the f*ck out as I did when my doctor told me I had contracted HPV. Not going to hold you, all I heard was "STI" and the human reaction is to lose it because, like it or not, progression or not, there is still a stigma attached to that acronym. Admittedly, part of that fear and shame comes from not knowing, so here we are...knowing, learning, and growing. The first thing you should know is that HPV usually works itself out within two years, but until then, it's critical that you schedule and attend follow up visits per doctor's orders. Dr. Jasmin refers to this process as "active monitoring", which will allow you and your physician to stay in the know to ensure that the strain doesn't develop into "cancerous tissue." She further states that the earlier we catch these types of new developments, the sooner we can intervene.
Unless, your diagnosis has proven to be symptomatic (warts or cancerous tissue are present), there won't be a treatment and there is no cure -- so it's literally just a waiting game. Even then, Dr. Jasmin warns that while warts and cancerous growths can be removed, they can also reappear, reminding us once more the importance of receiving your screening.
Speak Up, Sis
Although HPV is common -- actually, the most common STI says Dr. Jasmin, as it is currently infecting 80 million people in the US or one in four -- it is still a venereal disease, meaning that you should tell your partner once your gyni has spotted it.
The caveat here is that it can be difficult to determine the who and when, as in when you initially contracted it and who you contracted it from or possibly spread it to. According to Dr. Jasmin, this has a lot to do with the fact that HPV is so common and also the fact that the symptoms can take years to develop. That said, it's super important to protect ourselves and this includes wrapping it up during oral sex. Female condoms can be a lot, other options include cutting a male condom to provide your partner with protection when going down on you. Here's how.
Want more stories like this? Sign up for our newsletter here and check out the related reads below:
STDs: Why You Should Test With Your Partner - Read More
The Day I Learned I Could PrEp Against HIV - Read More
What I Wish Someone Told Me About Having Sex - Read More
Originally published November 11, 2018
Featured image by Getty Images