Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a sexually transmitted infection that often causes no symptoms at all and potentially resolves on its own. However, certain types of HPV can lead to cervical cancer, which means it’s absolutely necessary that you never miss a checkup with your gynae and have Pap smears regularly. We spoke to Johannesburg-based gynaecologist Dr Mpume Simelane about what HPV myths need to be busted.
1 Myth: I’m one of the few people with HPV.
Reality: Not so! HPV is incredibly common and highly transmittable via skin-to-skin contact. It’s usually asymptomatic and the majority of infections are transient and are cleared within one to two years.
2 Myth: An abnormal Pap means cervical cancer.
Reality: Certainly not. Firstly, there are other possibilities that can cause Pap results to be abnormal. For example, it could be a local irritation, non-HPV infection, or a poorly taken specimen. But this considered, a truly abnormal result often means the changes are ‘pre-cancerous’, requiring further investigation (colposcopy) and treatment (LLETZ), but are not in themselves cancer. This is crucial and the whole point of Pap smears. It’s a screening tool used to detect abnormal cells so docs can treat pre-cancerous lesions before they become an invasive disease. Persistent infection with the high-risk types, notably 16 and 18, is associated with the development of dysplasia and cervical cancer.
3 Myth: If I use condoms all the time, I won’t get HPV.
Reality: This, unfortunately, is not entirely true. The HPV virus can be transmitted via skin-to-skin contact, which a condom may not be covering completely. Used properly, condoms work well to prevent STIs transmitted via bodily fluid such as HIV, but less so against STIs spread through skin-to-skin contact. Regular Pap smears are still important, even if you’re using condoms. Try annual smears to be safe, or whenever you have a new sexual partner.
4 Myth: Genital warts lead to cervical cancer.
Reality: Genital warts do not cause cancer! They are caused by the low-risk HPV types 6, 11, 42, and 43, which are almost always benign (non-cancerous). It’s having unprotected intercourse with someone infected with a high-risk type of the infection that is risky – whether they have genital warts or not.
5 Myth: Lesbians don’t need regular Pap smears.
Reality: As the route of transmission for HPV is skin-to-skin contact, the risk is still there. Therefore, regular Pap smears are recommended for all females, regardless of your sexual preference.
Read more about sex