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HPV vs Pap: Verdict Out On Best Screening Method For Cervical Cancer

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HPV stands for human papillomavirus. A different virus from the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and the herpes simplex virus (HSV), HPV is the culprit behind the most widespread sexually transmitted infection of today.

Any sexually active person is an easy target for HPV infection. Contrary to the popular notion that people with multiple sexual partners are the only ones at risk, monogamous couples are no safer from contracting HPV and other sexually transmitted infections.

However, it is not true that a person can get HPV from toilet seats, hugging, holding hands, swimming in pools or hot tubs, family history, or poor hygiene.

Yes, HPV Can Cause Cervical Cancer

There are two types of HPVs: low-risk and high-risk HPV.

Low-risk HPVs (HPV 6 and HPV 11) cause genital warts, which usually resolve on their own and require no treatment.

High-risk HPVs (HPV 16 and HPV 18), on the other hand, do not have visible symptoms, but should be taken more seriously, because they can lead to different types of cancers such as cancer of the vulva, penis, rectum, anus, oropharyngeal cancer, and cervical cancer.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 17,600 women and 9,300 men develop HPV-related cancers every year. The CDC also notes that more than 11,000 women get cervical cancer every year in the United States.

For 2017, the American Cancer Society estimates that about 12,820 new cases of invasive cervical cancer will be diagnosed, with at least 4,210 women dying from the disease.

HPV vs Pap Test: The Best Screening Method For Cervical Cancer According To Experts

Because infection can occur up to years after having sex with an HPV-infected person, and because cancer-causing HPV types rarely show symptoms or don't cause health problems during the early stages, most people with HPV are left clueless about their condition.

A Pap test or cytology, which checks for cell changes or abnormal cells in the cervix, used to be the standard screening procedure for cervical cancer, 70 percent of which is caused by HPV 16 and HPV 18.

But in the latest special issue of the scholarly journal Preventive Medicine, experts weighed in on the emerging evidence that the HPV test may be a better screening method for cervical cancer as opposed to the Pap test. The HPV test checks for the virus, not cell changes.

"It has since become clear that testing for the causal agent, HPV, can bring substantial improvements and efficiency to cervical cancer screening," Preventive Medicine Deputy Editor Gayle A. Shinder said.

Doing a Pap test plus an HPV test (called co-testing) is highly recommended to detect early cervical cancers or pre-cancers in women age 30 and above.

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