Myths and Facts about HPV
January is Cervical Cancer
Myth: I'm the only person I know with HPV
It's easy to understand why so many people hold this misunderstanding about HPV. After all, public awareness of the virus is extremely low. Most people who contact us with questions about HPV have never even heard of HPV until they were diagnosed.
Those struggling with this troubling condition or strange new diagnosis rarely discuss it with others, since it would seem unlikely that they would understand. And others--your second-best friend, your cousin, your coworker, your neighbor across the street--likewise feel constrained to keep silent about their HPV, thinking that you wouldn't understand.
The net result is that very few people ever have the chance to place genital HPV in an accurate context, as the very common virus it really is. According to an article published in 1997 in the American Journal of Medicine, about 74 percent of Americans--nearly three out of four--have been infected with genital HPV at some point in their lives.
Among those ages 15-49, only one in four Americans has not had a genital HPV infection.
It's true that most often genital HPV produces no symptoms or illness, and so a person who has been infected may never know about it. Experts estimate that at any given time, only about 1% of all sexually active Americans have visible genital warts. Far more women have abnormal Pap tests related to HPV infection, but in many cases health care providers do not explain the link between HPV and cervical infection, perpetuating the misunderstanding.
Myth: Only people who have casual sex get STIs
Even with up to 19 million Americans contracting a sexually transmitted infection (STI) each year, many people continue to believe that only "someone else"--for example, people who have multiple partners, sex outside of marriage, or a different lifestyle--are at risk.
It is true that a higher number of sexual partners over the course of a lifetime does correlate with a higher risk for STIs, including HPV. This is not because of any moral judgment concerning "casual" sex as compared with "committed" sex, but simply because the more sexual partners you have, the more likely you will have a partner who (knowingly or unknowingly) is carrying an STI.
However, STIs can be passed along as readily in a loving, long-term relationship as in a one-night stand. And HPV is the virus to prove it. At least one study of middle-class, middle-aged women, most of them married with children, found that 21% were infected with cervical HPV. In other studies, according to Nancy Kiviat, MD, a researcher at the University of Washington, about 80% of people who have had as few as four sexual partners have been infected with HPV.
Myth: An HPV diagnosis means someone has cheated
This myth has been responsible for a great deal of anger, confusion, and heartache. It has led many people to tragically wrong conclusions because it fails to take into account one of the most mysterious aspects of genital HPV: its ability to lie latent.
The virus can remain in the body for weeks, years, or even a lifetime, giving no sign of its presence. Or a genital HPV infection may produce warts, lesions, or cervical abnormalities after a latent period of months or even years.
As mentioned above, most people who are infected with genital HPV never know it; their virus does not call attention to itself in any way. In most cases, a person is diagnosed with HPV only because some troubling symptom drove him or her to a health care professional, or some abnormality was revealed in the course of a routine exam.
But although careful examination can identify genital HPV infection, and laboratory tests may even narrow down the identification to a specific type among the two dozen or so that inhabit the genital tract, there is simply no way to find out how long a particular infection has been in place, or to trace it back to a particular partner.
In a monogamous relationship, therefore, just as in an affair or even in an interval of no sexual relationships at all, an HPV diagnosis means only that the person contracted an HPV infection at some point in his or her life.