Human papillomavirus

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a virus from the papillomavirus family that is capable of infecting humans. Like all papillomaviruses, HPVs establish productive infections only in keratinocytes of the skin or mucous membranes. While the majority of the nearly 200 known types of HPV cause no symptoms in most people, some types can cause warts (verrucae), while others can – in a minority of cases – lead to cancers of the cervix, vulva, vagina, and anus (in women) or cancers of the anus and penis (in men). It can also cause cancers of the head and neck (tongue, tonsils and throat). Recently, HPV has been linked with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

More than 30 to 40 types of HPV are typically transmitted through sexual contact and infect the anogenital region. Some sexually transmitted HPV types may cause genital warts. Persistent infection with "high-risk" HPV types — different from the ones that cause skin warts — may progress to precancerous lesions and invasive cancer. HPV infection is a cause of nearly all cases of cervical cancer. However, most infections with these types do not cause disease.

Most HPV infections in young females are temporary and have little long-term significance. Seventy percent of infections are gone in 1 year and ninety percent in 2 years. However, when the infection persists — in 5% to 10% of infected women — there is high risk of developing precancerous lesions of the cervix, which can progress to invasive cervical cancer. This process usually takes 10–15 years, providing many opportunities for detection and treatment of the pre-cancerous lesion. Progression to invasive cancer can be almost always prevented when standard prevention strategies are applied, but the lesions still cause considerable burden necessitating preventive surgeries, which do in many cases involve loss of fertility.

In more developed countries, cervical screening using a Papanicolaou (Pap) test or liquid-based cytology is used to detect abnormal cells that may develop into cancer. If abnormal cells are found, women are invited to have a colposcopy. During a colposcopic inspection, biopsies can be taken and abnormal areas can be removed with a simple procedure, typically with a cauterizing loop or, more commonly in the developing world — by freezing (cryotherapy). Treating abnormal cells in this way can prevent them from developing into cervical cancer.

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