HPV: Tainted Love.

Aliases: human papillomavirus, HPV

Sometimes love sucks. Along with causing emotional tumult, love can literally lay you low. Diseases have made use of the acts of love; capitalizing on our kinder (or at least most human) instincts by using them as an opportunity for transmission. One of the most successful of this suite of pathogens is human papillomavirus (HPV).

In the opening monologue of the film Love Actually, Hugh Grant’s character posits that “love actually is all around”. While that may or may not be true, HPV really is ubiquitous. Nearly all sexually active adults (even those who have only had one sexual partner) will contract the virus at some point in their lives. In the US alone, there are approximately 79 million people currently infected, and about 14 million new infections each year1.

HPV is all around. Actually.

But while love is good for HPV, it is bad for love. Oncogenic HPV infection (being infected with a strain of HPV related to cancer) has negative psychological impacts on women, and negatively affects their sex lives, with cascading effects on their relationships3,4. It can also put love to the test; women who felt better about their relationships were more likely to confide in their partners about the infection4.

Cause: As there are many types of love, so too with HPV. There are more than 40 strains of the virus, which are passed by “genital contact”, mostly during vaginal and anal sex. A person may contract more than one strain, and asymptomatic carriers can pass it on to sexual partners. Rarely, it is passed to a baby by its mother during birth1.

Consequence: HPV can result in a variety of illnesses. The virus can infect the mouth and throat, as well as the genital region, and it can cause genital warts, recurrent respiratory papillomatosis (RRP; warts in the throat), and several types of cancer. In fact, nearly all cases of genital warts, RRP, and cervical cancer are cased by HPV. The types of HPV that cause warts are not the same as those that cause cancer1.

Cure: There is no cure for HPV. But most of the time nothing needs to be done: most people (90%) who contract it will flush the virus from their system on their own within two years. However, it is impossible to predict whose immune system will be up to the challenge and whose won’t1. There are two vaccines (Cervarix and Gardasil) that protect against strains of the virus related to cervical cancer. Gardisil also protects against strains related to genital warts, and anal, vaginal, and vulvar cancers. Vaccination is recommended for girls and boys ages 11-12, to allow time for an immune response to develop before sexual activity begins2.


1. Genital HPV Infection- Fact Sheet. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 25 July 2013. Web. 7 February 2014.

2. Human Papillomaviurs (HPV). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 5 February 2014. Web. 20 February 2014. http://www.cdc.gov/hpv/vaccine.html

3. Jeng, CJ, H Lin, & LR Wang. (2010). The effect of HPV infection on a couple’s relationship: A qualitative study in Taiwan. Taiwanese Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, 49: 407-412.

4. Lin, H, CJ Jeng, & LR Wang. (2011). Psychological responses of women infected with cervical human papillomavirus: A qualitative study in Taiwan. Taiwanese Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, 50: 154-158.

Image source: http://www.usatoday.com/story/life/movies/2012/11/14/producersguild-bevan-fellner-annakarenina-lesmiserables-award/1705047/ (Photo credit: Peter Mountain)

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Suzi Claflin

I am a postdoctoral fellow studying chronic disease epidemiology.

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