Dr. Beatriz Pérez González, gynecologist at Top Doctors, will talk to us about the human papilloma virus.
What is the HPV virus and how many types of virus are there?
It is a virus that only affects humans. Today there are about 100 known strains. We call it a strain when there are small variants in the DNA that cause it to have slightly different characteristics. Of these 100 strains we know that about 40 affect the genitals. Of these 40 can be divided into two large groups; some that have a very high oncogenic power, i.e. the capacity to transform the cell into a cancerous cell, which are called high-risk HPV, and others with a lower oncogenic power, which are called HPV or low-risk human papillomavirus. Within the low risk there are 2 strains, 6 and 11, which give condylomas, the typical ones, which are small warts that can burn and are not related to cancer, and the other strains that can give cancer are always slower and less aggressive. The high-risk strains, where the best known are 6, 16 and 18, transform the cell and in 80% of the cases they can lead to cervical cancer.
How is it transmitted?
The human papilloma virus is fundamentally a sexually transmitted virus and is transmitted by fluids and above all by mucosal contact. Therefore, one of the most important elements for prevention is the condom. I know that it is said that it is not 100% safe, because there are occasions when it does not avoid contact with mucous membranes, but the risk is almost non-existent.
Does HPV produce symptoms?
At the beginning of the first infection, or when you are infected for the first time, you do not notice anything, it is asymptomatic. Normally it takes between 5 and 8 years for the cancer to appear, so you can be infected without knowing it and you can also infect your partner without knowing it.
How can it be prevented?
We have already mentioned that to avoid it, the condom, but to prevent it, the vaccine. We have to change the classic concept of vaccination, everyone knows that if you get infected by a virus you create antibodies in your blood and you are already protected. In the case of HPV, as it is a very superficial infection, it does not contact the blood and you do not produce antibodies, so you are not protected, whereas if you are vaccinated, as it is a blood vaccine, you produce those antibodies. These antibodies achieve three things, firstly they eliminate the virus, secondly if they do not manage to eliminate it, this virus does not spread and if you have already started to develop a lesion of this type that can lead to cancer in 5 or 8 years, they stop it, therefore the vaccine is very important even if you have the virus.
Does it always lead to cancer?
No, most of the time fortunately it cures itself and the virus is eliminated. In cases where it progresses to cancer it can be detected by a simple cytology, which is an analysis of the cells of the cervix, where we only scratch a little bit, so it does not hurt and it takes less than 1 minute to perform. If women have more or less periodical phytologies, having a stable partner every 2 years or if not every year, we will always detect the virus in a previous curable phase because we know that from the contagion to the appearance of the cancer, the average time is between 5 and 8 years.