Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Infection Prevention

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Unlike other sexually transmitted infections (STIs), HPV only requires skin-to-skin contact; neither sexual intercourse nor the exchange of bodily fluid is needed. Because there are no drugs available to treat an HPV infection, prevention is the best way to protect your health and those around you. This obviously involves safer sex practices, but it could also involve getting the Cervarix, Gardasil, or Gardasil 9 vaccine. As HPV is the most common STI in the world today (more than 70 percent of the population is affected by at least one strain of the virus), prevention strategies should be top-of-mind for anyone who is sexually active in any way.

Abstinence

Currently, there is only one surefire way to avoid HPV: abstinence. Whether this is a realistic approach for you is ultimately up to you. 

Still, with HPV, there's a catch: Unlike other STIs that are passed through sexual intercourse, HPV can be transmitted by simply by rubbing infected skin against non-infected skin. As such, certain "safe," non-penetrative activities like mutual masturbation and frottage ("dry humping") can spread infection just as effectively as intercourse.

Moreover, because the risk of HPV increases with the number of people a person has sex with over a lifetime, parents and educators should encourage teens to delay sex for as long as possible and help them understand the specific risks that HPV poses.

However, even if a teen is fully abstinent, HPV vaccination is advised (see below).

Safer Sex

Safer sex practices are typically the first-line of HPV defense for most people. These strategies can significantly reduce your risk and should always be a part of your HPV prevention plan.

Condoms

Condoms are central to reducing your risk of HPV. It is important to understand, however, that they do not protect potentially vulnerable areas of tissue such as those in and around the scrotum, vagina, vulva, or anus.

This was evidenced in part by a four-year study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which concluded that the consistent use of condoms was associated with a 50 percent reduction in HPV risk among non-monogamous men with multiple sex partners. Consistent and correct use of condoms is essential, including during oral sex.

10 Best Condoms to Buy

Sex Partners

A reduction in the number of sex partners should similarly be considered. Most studies have demonstrated a direct correlation between HPV infections and the numbers a sex partners a person has over a lifetime. In fact, one 2013 study from Germany concluded that the main risks factors for HPV-related cervical complications were the number of sex partners and starting sex at a younger age. (Younger age suggests a larger number of lifetime partners.)

HPV Vaccination

There are three vaccines currently available to prevent many of the high-risk forms of HPV:

  • Gardasil which protects against HPV 6, 11, 16, and 18
  • Cervarix which protects against HPV 16 and 18
  • Gardasil 9 which protects against HPV 6, 11, 13, 31, 33, 45, 52, and 58

However, HPV vaccination is not recommended for everyone. According to the CDC, certain groups should be offered the vaccine based on their age and relative risk:

  • HPV vaccination can be started in boys and girls between the ages of 11 and 12. Even children as young as 9 may be offered the vaccine, if appropriate.
  • Vaccination can be offered to women up to the age of 26 and to men up to the age of 21.
  • People at high risk of infection (including men who have sex with men, transgender people, and persons with HIV) can be given the vaccine if they have not previously received or completed a vaccination course.
  • Anyone who has been diagnosed with HPV can request the vaccine to prevent future infection with high-risk strains.

The vaccination series involves either two or three shots. Two doses are recommended for children starting the series before their 15th birthday. Three are recommended for immune-compromised individuals or people who started the series after age 15.

While the series of shots can cost as much as $500, there are patient assistance and co-pay programs available to help reduce costs.

Male Circumcision

According to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, being circumcised can reduce a man's risk of getting HPV by more than 35 percent compared to men who aren't circumcised. While voluntary male circumcision (VMC) isn't widely endorsed in the United States as a means of disease prevention, it has long been used in Africa where STIs like HIV are widespread. The same study also suggested that VMC could reduce a man's risk of getting herpes simplex virus 2 (genital herpes) by nearly 25 percent.

Circumcision is often performed on male babies shortly after birth. While it can be performed on adult males, the procedure (if done electively, rather than as part of a treatment for another condition) is usually not covered by insurance.

Unfortunately, VMC appears to offer little benefit to a female sexual partner.

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