By Dr Randa El-Tawil
An astonishing 80% of sexually active people will get an HPV infection in their lifetime, according to the American Sexual Health Association. We don’t often hear these figures, however, because it’s a taboo subject; infection with HPV or human papillomavirus is falsely linked to promiscuity.
It is important that we as a society talk about the infection though – not only because it can be deadly for both men and women, but because it’s preventable. Luckily, vaccinations against HPV are now part of the UAE’s ‘National Immunisation Programme’, in line with guidelines in other parts of the world.
Why worry about HPV?
In some instances, people don’t know they have been affected, as their body’s own immune system will clear the infection with no lasting effects. For others it’s not so simple though.
Genital warts, caused by HPV, are the most common sexually transmitted infections worldwide and can affect both males and females. Classed as low risk, they are unlikely to cause lasting harm, but are uncomfortable and embarrassing.
Unfortunately, warts are not the worst-case scenario – 15 strains of HPV are considered to be carcinogenic and HPV-associated cancers make up more than 5% of the total diagnosed cancer cases worldwide.
In the US alone, 27,000 cases of cancer per year can be directly attributed to HPVs and affect men and women. While the vast majority of these cancers are cervical, HPVs also increase the incidence of penile cancer, anal cancer, throat cancer and mouth cancer.
How does vaccination work?
There are a few vaccines available to deal with various strains of HPV. There is one specific type that can be given to both boys and girls (or men and women) from the ages of nine to 45. This vaccine can be given as a series of three shots over a three to six month period. Another type of vaccine is for women only, and protects against different strains. Your family doctor will be able to tell advise which vaccine would be best for you or your children.
While these vaccines are optional as part of the UAE’s National Immunization Program, the message from the Ministry of Health and Prevention is clear – they want to see increased awareness. Dr Hussain Abdul Rahman Al Rand, Assistant Undersecretary for Health Centres and Clinics at the Ministry of Health And Prevention, said at a recent press conference: “We are in the process of launching a drive on October 2 to spread awareness about HPV vaccination and its importance amongst community members. We would like dispel any misconceptions circulating among people and make it clear that this has nothing to do with traditions. This vaccination is for everyone.”
In short, these vaccines might prevent unsightly, uncomfortable genital warts, or they might just save lives.