November 29, 2023

Risks Among Women with Human Papillomavirus (HPV)

Preventative Health
Primary Care
Women's Health
Risks Among Women With HPV

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a common virus present in both men and women. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reveals that more than 42 million Americans are infected with HPV, and 13 million, including teenagers, become infected each year. Unfortunately, HPV causes 100% of cervical cancer cases.

Dr. Molly Larson, OB/GYN at Fort HealthCare, shares important information for women, specifically.

Identifying and Treating HPV

When women have their yearly maintenance exam, they undergo a PAP test which screens for HPV in patients aged 30 and older. In younger women, the PAP primarily looks for cellular abnormalities. That said, if abnormalities are identified, younger women are then subsequently tested for HPV.

“Generally, excluding some populations, following up of abnormal cells on a PAP smear and positive HPV involves a test called a colposcopy. That’s a test where we have you come back to the office and we take a look, using a special microscope, at the cervix as a whole,” explains Dr. Larson. “This helps us to see cells that are infected by HPV so we can take some targeted biopsies of those cells.”

If the biopsies come back negative, or are considered “low grade,” women don’t have to return for another year. If higher grade cells are present, women need to have a procedure called LEEP (loop electrosurgical excision procedure).

“Traditionally it was called a conization, where we take a larger cone sample of the cervix to further be able to see the abnormal cells, see how much they extend throughout the cervix, and to hopefully have that procedure be curative,” states Dr. Larson. “Meaning, we remove all the abnormal cells.”

Understanding the HPV Vaccine and Its Purpose

There’s been a push to raise awareness about the HPV vaccine, which has been on the market for more than 15 years. When the vaccine was first available, it only covered four different types of HPV. The current vaccine being offered covers nine different types of HPV— seven most common virus types that cause cervical cancer and two most common virus types that cause genital warts.

Dr. Larson recommends administering the HPV vaccine to anyone, regardless of gender, as early as nine years old. Between nine and 14-15, patients receive two doses of the vaccine. Anyone older than that gets three doses. The vaccine is available to individuals up to age 45.

Some parents may worry nine, or even 15, is far too young to think about a sexually transmitted disease. Dr. Larson assures getting the vaccine is not sexually-driven in youngsters.

“Initially when these vaccines came out, there was a lot of talk out there about people being afraid that by doing these vaccines we were somehow encouraging an early ‘sexual debut’ or something like that. That’s certainly not the case. We just want to get the vaccine in people as early as we possibly can, in order to protect them for their whole life.”

This is particularly important when cervical cancer enters the equation. Dr. Larson notes some research studies in Europe, where the vaccine has been available longer, that show reduced cervical cancer rates due to the HPV vaccine. “These vaccines are really working to help prevent cervical cancer, which to me is just awesome.”