IN MY ROLE AS AN HIV test counselor and educator, I tend to focus heavily on HIV. When I talk about safe sex, whether expressly stated or not, I’m usually talking about reducing the risk of acquiring or transmitting HIV. I always add “and other STIs,” but what about those other sexually transmitted infections? There are so many “other STIs” that it is often hard to keep them all straight. Additionally, many are easily treated with antibiotics or tend to run their course without any serious complications. However, there are several exceptions to this rule, and we all could learn more about the “other STIs.” This month, just in time for the social and sexual festivities of Pride, I will address a biggie – human papillomavirus (HPV).
According to the Centers for Disease Control, HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. The virus is so common that most sexually active men and women will get at least one type of the virus at some point in their lives. While the virus is most commonly linked to genital warts and cervical cancer in women, there are many different types of HPV, and men are not immune from HPV-related cancers. The virus can also lead to cancers of the penis, anus and throat.
Given the rate of HPV transmission across the country, what can we do to protect ourselves and our loved ones? Fortunately, there is now a vaccine that can protect us from four of the most common types of HPV, two of which are known to cause cancer. Gardasil® is now recommended for all 11-12 year old girls and boys. While most are not yet sexually active at that age, prevention is the objective here. It is best if young people can complete the series of three shots before they become sexually active for optimal protection. The vaccine is also recommended for young men and women through age 26 who were not vaccinated when they were younger.
Through the Affordable Care Act, the vaccine is now covered by most private insurers and all those who are part of the exchange. The vaccine is also covered by Medicaid, and there are vaccine assistance programs for the uninsured. If you are over 26, you still may be eligible for the vaccine, but if not, it is important to have regular pap exams to check for abnormal cells. As always, the most important thing is to talk openly with your medical provider. Having a frank discussion with your doctor about your sexual health and habits can make all the difference and could potentially save your life.