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What is HPV?

Human papilloma viruses, or HPVs, are a group of viruses attracting a lot of press lately thanks to controversy over the HPV vaccine. Many health experts, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, recommend that all children, both boys, and girls, receive the HPV vaccine at the age of 11 or 12. There are currently two vaccines licensed in the US. The vaccine is given in a three-dose series that requires six months to complete. Ideally, the vaccine is given before the onset of sexual activity, but it can be given up to age 26.

The vaccine is important because it prevents infection with viruses in the HPV family, which includes more than 100 individual viruses. Infection with HPV can cause a number of diseases. Certain types of HPV cause common skin warts such as flat warts and plantar warts. The most dangerous strain, however, is a sexually transmitted disease that causes genital warts. This strain of HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the US. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 80 percent of all people will have been infected by HPV by age 50.

Vaccination is recommended because HPV is so easy to transmit (but hard to detect), and it can have serious health consequences, especially for women. HPV is so common because not everyone who is infected actually has symptoms—they are asymptomatic. Despite their lack of symptoms, they can still transmit the disease.

Among people who do show symptoms, the virus can cause genital warts. Genital warts are warts found on the vagina, labia, anus, perineum, scrotum, or penis. The warts are said to look like tiny cauliflowers and require treatment for removal.

In more serious cases, the virus can cause cancerous changes in the skin of the region that can lead to cancers of the cervix, vagina, penis, anus, or vulva. Among women, cervical cancer caused by HPV is found in 12,000 people and is responsible for more than 4,000 deaths annually in the US. The common pap smear is designed to detect cervical cancer.

In children, anogenital HPV types can cause juvenile recurrent respiratory papillomatosis. Here the virus leads to warts on the larynx or other areas of the respiratory tract. Respiratory papillomatosis is difficult to treat and often recurring. It is believed that this HPV is spread during birth but happens very rarely. Warts on the genitals of children are considered signs of sexual abuse and should be investigated.


  • Red Book Online
  • Human Papillomaviruses.
    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  • Genital HPV infection—Fact Sheet.

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