Almost Half Of U.S. Adults Have HPV

by Madeleine Aggeler

2012 was an eye-opening year for many of us. Everyone was dancing “Gangam Style” for some reason, people started saying "Yolo", and HBO’s Girls informed us that “all adventurous women” have HPV. Five years later, according to a recent CDC report, adventurous women are in good company; researchers found that almost half of adults between the ages of 18 to 59 were infected with the human papilloma virus (HPV).

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection, occasionally referred to as the “common cold” of STIs (which sounds a little flippant to me, but whatever). While most of the over 150 types of HPV strains clear themselves naturally from the immune system, some high-risk strains can lead to cancers of the genitals and neck. Using data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from 2011 to 2014, researchers found that 45 percent of men and 40 percent of women were infected with genital HPV, while 25 percent of men and 20 percent of women were infected with high-risk strains. About seven percent of both men and women were infected with oral HPV.

Though the numbers are high, there has been a significant downturn since the introduction of the HPV vaccine in 2006, with HPV infection dropping 60 percent among teenage girls, and 34 percent among young women.

The vaccine has been targeted at children in particular, with some researchers suggesting it be made a part of a child’s regular vaccination program.

“The vaccine is targeted to very young kids because you have to catch them before they are sexually active,” explains Geraldine McQuillen, a senior epidemiologist at the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics.

While a 2015 report found that 6 in 10 girls and 5 in 10 boys have started the recommended three-dose series of HPV vaccinations, Electra Paskett, a cancer control researcher at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, argues this isn’t enough, and parents need to be focused on getting their children vaccinated.

“The vaccine is a part of cancer prevention,” Paskett said, “The vaccine has the potential to prevent 30,000 cases of cancer each year and is woefully underused.”

The report touches on another factor that can significantly affect a person’s sexual health: race. The prevalence of both oral and genital HPV was highest among Black adults, and lowest among Asian adults. This disparity is not unique to HPV. Black Americans are nine times as likely to be diagnosed with HIV, 2.5 times more likely to die during pregnancy, and 40 percent more likely to die of breast cancer.

The CDC’s findings highlight an important issue with society’s current approach to medicine in general, and sexual health in particular. Too often, health care is focused on solving one problem, putting out fires instead of working to prevent them. But our health is about so much more than one fever or one sprained ankle or one HPV flare up, it’s about who we are as people — the color of our skin, our sexual orientation, our gender, where we’re from, how much money we make, what we do.

Approaching medicine from a more comprehensive, preventative, lifelong perspective — providing children with the treatment they need to have a safe sex life in the future, and taking into account how someone's identity (and society's attitude towards that identity) affects their health — has the potential to not only reduce future medical issues, but encourage a more open and honest dialogue about public and sexual health.