by Sarah Eidemiller, Staff Writer
When “Mara,” a junior whose name has been changed due to requested anonymity, went to the gynecologist this summer for a normal update, she left feeling anything but normal.
“I had this bump, and it looked like a shaving nick, but it wasn’t going away,” she said. “I asked the doctor to look at it, and she took one glance at it and said to me, ‘You have HPV.’ Right away, I didn’t know what to think. I thought I was dying or something. I just didn’t understand. I was so afraid.”
The gynecologist explained to Mara that she was the third girl that afternoon she had diagnosed with Human Papillomavirus, which is the most commonly sexually transmitted disease in the country.
“She told me that it’s spreading like a cold through campuses, and that about 7 out of 10 women have it these days,” Mara said.
According to the website of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 50 percent of sexually active people will have genital HPV at some time in their lives. About 20 million Americans are currently infected, and another 6 million will be infected next year.
“It was comforting to hear that I wasn’t alone, but I was still shocked,” Mara said. “It made me feel so dirty. I kept thinking, ‘Why me!’ But it can happen to anyone, and that’s the scary part. So many people don’t know about this, and that’s the scariest part of all.”
The bump turned out to be a genital wart, which is a symptom of HPV. But most of the time, girls don’t even know they are infected, because HPV comes in different strains and wears about 120 different disguises, some of which can be fatal. It has the ability to cause cervical, vulvar and vaginal cancers.
“The only symptoms come from certain forms that can cause genital warts, and if you don’t get those you don’t even know you have it,” said Pam Lesser, a physician assistant in Latrobe, who has been in practice for 32 years. “The only other way to know you have it is by having an abnormal pap smear and test specifically for HPV. It seems to be more rapid in younger generations. It seems that the virus has a higher predisposition in someone who has a younger cervix.”
The majority of individuals with the virus do not get warts, however, so someone who thinks they are clean may not be at all. Also, people think that condoms can totally prevent it, but the truth is that all it takes is skin-to-skin contact, so condoms do not always work.
Mara thinks that she may have learned this the hard way.
“I thought condoms protected against stuff like that, and now I regret how promiscuous I was last summer,” she said. “All it takes is one person you have slept with to have touched someone else who touched someone else who has it. It’s a big circle, and it’s made me think twice about having sex.”
Gardasil is a popular vaccination that can help prevent HPV, but it doesn’t prevent all of the different kinds that exist.
“The really messed up part about all of this, is that I got that vaccine,” Mara said. “It just really makes you think.”
HPV can go away but it often takes two years, and the infected person may stay a carrier for the rest of her life.
“Diagnosed patients have to be very aware and not miss any of their scheduled exams,” Lesser said. “The thing is that people need to know about sexual diseases. The media doesn’t stress them, and people don’t think they will be the one who is affected by it. You can carry the virus around for the rest of your life, so whoever choses to become sexually active is setting themselves up for it. Most young people don’t think about things like this ahead of time, and the media tells them that sex is fine for everybody, but they don’t consider the long-term consequences. HPV is something that people don’t want to talk about, until after they have gotten it. Also, inhibitions are definitely changed when teens are drinking, and they don’t use good judgment and will sleep with anybody, which is something else that contributes to the spread of the virus.”
Mara agrees that promiscuous sex can help explain why “HPV is like the common cold,” and now when she hears about people making poor decisions at parties, she can only shake her head.
“Been there, done that,” she said. “All I can do is warn them, but nobody ever thinks that it could happen to them. But it can.”
The wellness center can provide information to anyone how is concerned about HPV.
“We provide education on health and mental health issues, meeting students where they are with their concerns and or fears,” said wellness center director Mary Alice Armour. “Students are treated on a case by case basis by the nurses, physicians and counselors. We provide a non-judgmental approach to diagnosing, treating and following up with each individual.”