June 21, 2006 - Forget what you've heard. Condoms do protect women against - and wart-causing human papillomavirus (HPV) infections, according to a new study.
Although it is a sexually transmitted infection, you can get HPV even in sex without penetration, such as with skin-to-skin contact. Hence, there's been a lot of doubt as to whether condoms -- even when used perfectly -- can protect against HPV.
Doubters still can point to the fact that condoms don't offer perfect protection. But they now have to admit they help.
Women whose male sex partners use condoms consistently -- and correctly -- cut their risk of HPV infection by 70%, according to the study by University of Washington researchers Rachel L. Winer, PhD, and colleagues.
"Male condoms effectively reduce the risk of male-to-female genital HPV transmission," Winer and colleagues write.
The findings appear in the June 22 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine.
In an editorial accompanying the report, Family Health International researchers Markus J. Steiner, PhD, and Willard Cates Jr., MD, MPH, spell out what this means.
"Persons who choose to be sexually active can be reassured that condom use can reduce the risk of most sexually transmitted diseases," Steiner and Cates write. "Persons who abstain from sexual intercourse or who are uninfected and mutually monogamous eliminate the risk of sexually transmitted infections."
Young Women, First Sex, and HPV
Winer's team studied 82 college women, aged 18 to 22, who began sexual activity either during or just before the start of the 5-year-study.
The women kept a diary of their sexual activity. They also underwent Pap screens, DNA tests for HPV, and gynecologic exams every four months.
Women whose sex partners used condoms less than 5% of the time had an HPV infection rate of 89 infections per 100 patient-years. That is, if 100 of these women were sexually active for one year, 89 of them would have HPV infections. Women who used condoms every time they had sex had an HPV infection rate of 38 infections per 100 patient-years.
This means the women whose partners consistently used condoms had 70% fewer HPV infections, after controlling for the women's number of new sex partners and the male partners' number of previous sex partners.
"Given that HPV is transmissible through nonpenetrative sexual contact with both male and female partners and that imperfect condom use does occur, it is not surprising that some infections were still detected among women reporting consistent use," Winer and colleagues write.
However, the researchers find it encouraging that these young women, new to sex, were able to reduce their HPV risk via consistent use of condoms by their male partners.
What is correct, consistent condom use? It is the use of a new condom before every act of penetrative sex, whether vaginal, oral, or anal. Condoms must be applied to an erect penis, with space left at the tip to allow semen collection. Lubricants applied to the outside of the condom reduce the risk of condom breakage. Condoms must be removed immediately after sex, while the penis is still erect.