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Understanding the most common STI: HPV

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Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is an extremely common sexually transmitted infection (STI); in fact, up to 80 per cent of sexually active men and women will be infected with the virus at least once in their lives. The infection can be transmitted through skin-to-skin contact and primarily manifests on skin and mucous membranes, causing benign warts. However, it can also be associated with the onset of prostate cancer and cervical cancer. This month’s Movember campaign and last month’s Cervical Cancer Awareness Week provide opportunities to raise awareness for the potential health risks of HPV.

“HPV has been linked in recent years to the development of cervical cancer,” Sabrina Piedimonte, a resident doctor at the Montreal University Health Centre, said. “More recently, we know that it’s associated with vulvar, anal, penile, and head and neck cancers [….] That being said, 85 per cent of people are infected with the virus, but the good thing is that most people are young and healthy and can clear the virus.”

As an STI, contracting HPV can generate painful social stigma and feelings of shame. Many of the factors that put an individual at a higher risk of being infected, including having multiple sexual partners, being sexually active from an earlier age, having HIV or herpes, and smoking, are also subject to disparagement. An overlapping conglomeration of stigmas can have serious repercussions that extend far beyond physical health. Marginalized people are most affected by STI-based discrimination and may additionally have less access to adequate healthcare. 

For those infected with the virus, a promising treatment is available. The HPV vaccine has been shown to not only prevent the transmission of HPV, but also helps the body fight off the virus when already infected. Studies even show that the vaccine can prevent the relapse of precancerous lesions in the cervix. Thus, despite common misconceptions, it is still valuable to get the vaccine even after becoming sexually active. In support of this form of treatment, the Canadian government offers free vaccination to girls under the age of 18 and to men who have sex with men up to the age of 26.

“So far, most people get vaccinated when they’re in elementary school or high school,” Piedimonte said. “[But] not everybody in university has had that chance to be vaccinated or protected. This is a population that’s at higher risk for having multiple sexual partners and not necessarily having access to a doctor or knowing that they should have a PAP test.”

Part of a routine check-up for many women, PAP smears are a cervical screening technique used to test for pre-cancerous tissues. Ideally, they should be performed once every three years. However, if irregularities are found, these tests may be performed more often for monitoring purposes.

The Community Ambassadors to Conquer HPV (CATCH) teamed up with resident doctors from McGill Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology last month to provide students with STI screening, PAP tests, and HPV vaccinations. In addition to the clinic, they held information sessions about HPV, cervical cancer, and general women’s health. The collaborative effort recognized the arduous process of accessing  preventative testing and vaccinations outside of the university campus. The McGill Clinic also performs PAP smears, STI testing, and vaccinations; however, these services are only offered by appointment.

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