I’m here today to talk about the HPV vaccine.
I know that’s the blandest introductory sentence ever. I’m sorry, Freshman Comp professor, but I do have a purpose behind it: most blog entries I’ve read about the HPV vaccine frame it as a controversial vaccine starting from the introductory sentence, and it really shouldn’t be controversial. I’ve chosen to start out with an innocuous topic sentence to convey how boring and routine and non-controversial this vaccine should be.
Getting yourself or your kids the HPV vaccine should be a no-brainer, and I’m here to convince you of that fact.
First, a caveat: There are folks who will want to turn any discussion about vaccinations into a “controversy”, because they believe Vaccines are Evil. There are plenty of other articles debunking them and their thinking, so I’m just going to address Anti-Vaxers with this video:
Now shoo, Anti-Vaxers! We have nothing to discuss, here!
Understanding the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV)
The discussion of the virus is going to involve Science. Trust me, even if you are Science-adverse, you are smart, and you can handle this! Just hang with me and we’ll get through the Science together!
Okay, onward! To the Science!
The human papilloma virus is, as the name implies, a virus. It’s a pretty hardy little guy that can survive heat, drying, and some kinds of disinfectants, so if it gets on a surface, it will probably stick around for a while and remain infective. Most viruses are transmitted by skin-to-skin contact, but the fact that HPV is so resilient does make it difficult to prevent transmission. For instance, scratching a wart and then touching a cut on a different part of your skin can transmit HPV from the wart to your fingernail to the cells at the cut. Similarly, if someone gets HPV on their hands and it gets on the outside of a condom while the human is applying a condom during safe sex, the HPV can be transmitted to their sexual partner from the condom. Fortunately transmission of the virus via an inanimate object (whether a condom, fingernail, or table)does not appear to be super common, but it is possible. So condoms (and other safe-sex barrier methods) have some use in reducing the spread of HPV, but they don’t completely eliminate the risk.
I mean, condoms are totally awesome in preventing all sorts of other STDs, like AIDS, or chlamydia, or gonorrhea, or pregnancy. Absolutely practice safe sex and use condoms. Just know that there are limits to safe sex, and unfortunately, this is one of them.
So moving on, how does the virus actually get into your body and infect you? Normal human skin is really resistant to viral entry, so HPV has to get in by a break in the skin—a scratch, a nick, or a microtear, which is a scratch so tiny you probably don’t even know you have it. Also, mucous membranes – which cover the penis, vulva, vagina, cervix, GI tract, and anus, among other places –are particularly susceptible to microtears and don’t have as strong defenses as regular skin. Unsurprisingly, this makes mucous membranes an easy target for HPV viruses.
Once the HPV gets past the top layer of cells in your skin or mucous membrane, the virus enters the basal cells. Basal cells are constantly dividing and producing new cells that will become your skin cells or the cells of your mucous membrane, so that you don’t run out of skin and walk around skinless (assuming you managed to not die of a massive infection long enough to walk around).
However, if you have HPV, then during the growth and maturation of these new cells the virus will hijack the cell’s growth process to reproduce itself – even as the cell continues to mature. Once that virus-laden cell reaches the surface of the skin, the virus is shed off into the environment with its host cell, ready to infect more cells and repeat the cycle.
In fact, a lot of viruses reproduce and spread this way, and sometimes this can be pretty benign– including some HPV viruses. For instance, warts are maybe kind of unsightly, but they are not going to kill you. Unfortunately, HPV can also cause cancer sometimes, which can kill you.
So, what’s the deal with HPV and cancer? Since when does a virus cause cancer, anyway? I’ll answer those questions in the next installment.
Fancci is a US osteopathic medical school student in her clinical years. She hopes to one day open a rural family practice clinic, but first needs to survive the rest of med school and a residency.
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