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HPV/Genital Warts Health Center

Sexually Transmitted Virus Boosts Risk of Cervical Cancer

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Swedish researchers report that the presence of human papillomavirus (HPV) -- which is best known for causing genital warts -- greatly increases the chance that a woman will get cervical cancer in the coming years. The risk is greatest when a woman's body is unable to get rid of the virus over the course of many years.

"Women need to know that this is a really serious cancer risk," Robert Burk, MD, tells WebMD. Burk, a professor at Albert Einstein Medical College in New York and the author of an editorial accompanying the Swedish study, says that women with long-term infections need to be monitored closely, and to have any growths of abnormal cells removed. But he says that short-term infections, which are very common, do not pose a significant threat.

HPV is transmitted primarily through sexual intercourse and is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases. There are more than 30 types of HPV, but only a few seem to play a major role in cancer by allowing the growth of abnormal cells.

The Swedish team, from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, compared old Pap smears from about 120 women who developed cervical cancer with Pap smears from an equal number of healthy women of the same age. The researchers found evidence of HPV infection in 30% of the old smears from women who went on to develop cancer, compared with just 3% of smears from women who remained healthy. On average, cancer was detected more than five years after there was evidence of an HPV infection.

Because most women who get HPV infection clear the virus from their body within a few months, the scientists wanted to know whether that was also true of women who got cancer. It wasn't. DNA tests revealed that the same type of HPV found in old Pap smears was present in cancerous cells removed from the cervix years later.

"It's persistent infections that are the problem," Burk says. Persistent means an infection that is present for at least a year. Doctors can detect such infections by sending samples of cells to labs that perform DNA tests to determine the type of HPV.

But Burk says that such testing is probably not a good idea for most sexually active young women because so many of them are infected with HPV and because only about 20% have infections that last more than a year. In older women, he says, repeated DNA testing may be a valuable way to find those who should be monitored closely for early signs of cervical cancer.

 

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