To decrease risk of health complications, men and women should be vaccinated for human papillomavirus

by Beacon Staff • November 9, 2005

More than 20 million people in the United States have HPV. Almost three out of four people between 15 and 49 will contract the virus in their lifetime, ASHA said.,"Social Health Association's Web site, www.ashastd.org. There are over 100 strains of the virus, which is not necessarily prevented by condom use, the ASHA said.

More than 20 million people in the United States have HPV. Almost three out of four people between 15 and 49 will contract the virus in their lifetime, ASHA said. Because the virus is asymptomatic and undetectable, HPV can be spread among sexual partners unconsciously, according to ASHA.

The Resource Foundation's Web site, www.resourcefnd.org, names high school and college students as the group with the highest risk of contracting the virus; two- thirds of STI cases are found in people under 25. Merck said their clinical studies have included adolescent men and women aged 10 to 23.

For many young people, the vast amount of complex information about HPV is difficult to comb through, and the correlation between cervical cancer and HPV is often misunderstood.

Freshman TV/video major Marissa Rosado said that she was aware of the disease but thought the virus caused only warts. Nicolas Raineau, a freshman film major, had heard of HPV but wasn't aware of its symptoms or its connection with cervical cancer. "I just assume anything with letters is an STD," he said. Raineau also thought that he would only have to be vaccinated if his "cervix were in danger" (men do not have cervixes) or if he were promiscuous, but men are equally susceptible to genital warts caused by HPV. They are also often the carriers of the virus and unknowingly infect their female partners, Merck said. Therefore, it would be important for both sexes to get vaccinated with Gardasil before or soon after they become sexually active.

The implications of distributing the drug to this demographic, however, are complicated.

Because people would ideally receive the vaccine before they become sexually active, Mary Jane Horton of Ms. Magazine recently wrote that parents might be hesitant to consider a child's future sexuality and to vaccinate their preteen for an STI.

Emerson's health care professionals share this concern. "You have to look at the current state of vaccines in the United States and the parents' perception of them," said Jane Powers, nurse practitioner and director of the Center for Health and Wellness. "Many [parents] are in denial that their kids will ever be sexually active," she said. This could mean that, if the vaccine isn't given as a necessary precaution before a person becomes sexually active, then young people will have to actively seek the treatment on their own.

"If the vaccination is earmarked for cancer prevention-and the aspect of sexually transmitted disease downplayed-then more parents will be supportive," Horton said.

This concept might also prove more compelling for the students themselves. Allison Bizon, a freshman marketing communications and new media double major, said "[HPV] kind of freaks me out ... I don't plan on getting myself into a situation like that, but I guess you never know what's out there or who has something," Bizon said. "I think that the vaccine is a great idea. I think it is really helpful, and that it is a way to stay safe and still have freedom."

For those infected with HPV, disease that a normal, healthy immune system can generally fight off on its own, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). Those infected, however, are warned not to smoke cigarettes or consume alcohol, which weaken the body's defenses and can increase the risk of abnormal cell growth and cancer.

The ACS still stresses the importance of annual Pap tests for women to catch any abnormalities in cervical cells early, to increase the odds of preventing cervical cancer. (During a Pap test, a gynecologist swabs the cervix with a long brush or cotton tipped applicator to gather tissue, then examines it for abnormal cells.) Women found to have abnormal or precancerous cell growth on the cervix, often caused by HPV, ASHA said, are diagnosed with a condition known as "cervical dysplasia."

In the future, a vaccine may become just one more suggested precaution for students who are sexually active. For more information on cancer prevention, see below.

Miriam Clithero and Ryan Weaver contributed to this article.

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