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Nearly 70 percent of healthy Americans infected with HPV, but don't panic

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As many as two-thirds of adult American may be carrying the human papillomavirus but they need not worry. Latest study suggests that only a small fraction of the various strains are high-risk cancer-causing types.

The high-risk strains of HPV -- classified as type 16 and type 18 -- can cause almost all cervical cancers and other genital or oral cancers, the researchers say, but even infections with the 16 and 18 types do not often cause cancer.

The researchers analyzed DNA in tissue samples taken from about 100 men and women and found 69 percent showed signs of infections with some variety of HPV.

Infections of the skin were most common -- around 61 percent in the samples -- followed by vaginal infections (41 percent,) then mouth infections (at 30 percent) and intestinal infections (17 percent.)

Most of those types of infections are probably harmless, the researchers emphasized, and only 4 percent of the study participants showed any sign of either HPV-18 or HPV-16.

"We don't want people to be alarmed," Dr. Zhiheng Pei at the Langone Medical Center of New York University said of the incidence of HPV infections found in the study.

In fact, he said, infections with some strains of HPV might be a good thing, possibly stimulating a person's immune system allowing it to resist the more harmful, cancer-initiating strains. It may be an enough reason to not be worried at how prevalent some HPV infections seem to be.

"Our study offers initial and broad evidence of a seemingly 'normal' HPV viral biome in people that does not necessarily cause disease and that could very well mimic the highly varied bacterial environment in the body, or microbiome, which is key to maintaining good health," he said.

The study proved that most people carry a "community" of HPV in their bodies, one that is much more widespread, complex and it appears more beneficial than previously believed, the researchers said.

Still, Pei said, getting vaccinations against the HPV-16 and HPV-18 varieties -- two HPV vaccines that have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration -- is "a good idea."

Pei and his colleagues presented the results of their study at the 2014 meeting of the American Society of Microbiology, held this year in Boston.

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