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What is the Connection Between the Papilloma Virus and Cervical Cancer?

By Allegra J. Lingo
Updated May 17, 2024
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Cervical cancer is diagnosed in over 500,000 women worldwide each year, and kills 250,000. A link between the human papilloma virus and cervical cancer was first identified in the 1980s. HPV is the cause of over 99 percent of all cervical cancer cases. Routine tests can detect the presence of high-risk HPV strains, and a vaccine is available to safeguard against the virus.

The human papilloma virus (HPV) is a viral infection that is spread between people by skin-to-skin contact. It causes the formation of papillomas, or warts. Over 100 strains of the virus have been identified. Most strains of the virus present no symptoms, and the body rids itself of the infection on its own within two years. If the infection goes away on its own, there is no connection between the papilloma virus and cervical cancer.

Approximately 30 HPV strains are sexually transmitted infections, and can be passed to a partner by both genital contact and through oral sex. HPV6 and HPV11 are the most common strains. These cause genital warts, which are considered "low risk." These strains present no connection between the papilloma virus and cervical cancer.

There are 15 sexually transmitted HPV strains that are considered "high risk" because they produce proteins associated with abnormal cell functions and growth. These cell mutations can become cancerous. Two of these 15 strains, HPV16 and HPV18, account for over 70 percent of cervical cancer cases.

Testing for high risk strains of the human papilloma virus and cervical cancer begins with a routine pap smear. If the pap smear returns abnormal results, a doctor will order a DNA test of the cervical tissue to determine if it is HPV and, if so, what strain it is. Depending on the result of the DNA test, the doctor will either recommend regular pap smears to monitor the change in cells, or perform a colposcopy. In the colposcopy, an iodine solution is applied to the cervical tissue, which allows the doctor to locate the abnormal cells. A biopsy is then performed to test for cervical cancer.

Due to the common link between papilloma virus and cervical cancer, researchers have developed several vaccines to immunize patients from HPV. One of these, Gardasil®, is recommended for both men and women between the ages of nine and 26, and it is effective for HPV6, 11, 16, and 18. Another, Cervarix®, is recommended for women between age ten and 25. In its phase two clinical trials, Cervarix® had a 100 percent protection rate against HPV16 and 18.

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