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Understanding Human Papilloma Virus (HPV)

MORE than half of all sexually active people get a genital infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV) at some point in their lives, but most never know it. As a result, they might be spreading the virus to others without realising it.

Fortunately, vaccines are available to protect against the most harmful forms of HPV. These vaccines work best if administered well before a person becomes sexually active. Note that HPV infection is the most common sexually transmitted disease nowadays. The virus is spread from person to person through direct contact during vaginal, anal, or oral sex.

Many different types of HPV can cause infections in the throat or genital area in both men and women. In most cases, HPV is harmless and goes away on its own. But because some HPV types can cause genital warts, and others can cause changes in the cells that can eventually develop into certain cancers, especially cervical cancer.

Note that cervical cancer is the fourth-deadliest cancer among women worldwide. It’s therefore important that you protect yourself against HPV transmission with these specific strategies.

Get the HPV Vaccine to prevent and protect against the types of HPV that cause most cervical cancers, as well as HPV-related anal, vaginal, vulvar, penile, and oropharyngeal cancers, cancers of the soft palate, base of the tongue, and tonsils. The vaccine also protects against most warts.

The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all boys and girls be vaccinated at age 11 or 12, before any likely exposure to sexually transmitted strains of HPV. When you get an HPV vaccine, you’re not only protecting yourself from some strains of this cancer-causing virus, you’re also helping to prevent its spread to others.

Another preventive strategy is regular screening. Screening for cervical cancer begins at age 21 with a test called a Pap smear. This test helps identify any abnormal cells on the cervix. With regular screening, abnormal cells are detected early on and can be monitored or treated to prevent progression to cancer. Current guidelines recommend regular screening with a Pap smear until age 65.

Many women only need a Pap smear every 3-5 years if they have a history of normal tests. You also need to talk with your health care provider about how often you should be screened and what tests are available. Consider abstinence if you’re not ready or don’t want to have sex since the only 100 per cent effective way to prevent HPV transmission is abstinence from any sexual contact, including oral, anal, and vaginal sex. You may decide to abstain from sex if you’re not in a committed relationship, or if you’re in a relationship but don’t feel ready to have sex, or for any other reason. Don't start having sex too young since the younger you are when you start having sex, the greater your risk for acquiring an HPV infection if you’re exposed to the virus. The age group with the highest prevalence of HPV infection is between ages 15 and 25. There’s no way to know whether a prospective partner who is sexually experienced has HPV. If you’re going to have sex at a young age, the best way to protect yourself is to get vaccinated first. You can also lower your risk by using condoms from start to finish during any sexual encounter. Ideally, you and your partner should be honest with one another about your respective sexual histories. But keep in mind that anyone can have HPV, and it only takes one infected partner to transmit the virus to the other person. Another HPV prevention strategy is to limit the number of sexual partners you have. The more sexual partners, the more possible exposure you have to HPV. But even one sexual partner who has been exposed to HPV is enough to infect you. And the more partners your partner has had, the higher your risk. Some studies suggest that knowing a new partner for eight months or longer before having sex can reduce your risk of HPV transmission. The risk is lowered because that time period allows any HPV infection that is present in the potential partner to clear. For men, circumcision may lower your risk since a variety of studies have shown that men who are circumcised have a lower risk of HPV than those who are not, and their risk of infecting their female sexual partners is also lower. Since circumcision alone cannot provide a guarantee against HPV infection, parents should still get their sons vaccinated against HPV, regardless of circumcision status, and sexually active men should take appropriate precautions to avoid getting infected with HPV. Since the HPV vaccine is now approved for men through age 45, more men have the option of getting it to protect their sexual health. Adopt a healthy lifestyle to strengthen your immune system. Note that while no particular diet has been shown to prevent HPV infection or the cancers associated with HPV, there is evidence that following a healthy, plant-based diet high in naturally occurring vitamins and minerals strengthens the immune system and may be protective against developing at least some cancers. Follow a healthy diet, one that is low in saturated fat and sugars and rich in fruits and vegetables. Also, get regular exercise, don’t smoke, and don’t drink to excess. Keeping your body in good shape helps boost your immune system and a healthy immune system is able to fight off infections. Let’s protect our selves against HPV transmission. ● The Author, Racheal Masibo, is an Assistant Lecturer at St John’s University of Tanzania (SJUT)-School of Nursing, P.O BOX 47 Dodoma Tanzania. Email: rackelmasibo@yahoo.com Mobile: 0717513598

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Mwandishi: RACHEAL MASIBO

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