For those of you still under the delusion that HIV and the AIDS virus are the only sexually transmitted diseases out there that you need to worry about, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's latest report should be a good wake up call.
According to their recent report, one in four women aged 14 to 59 are infected with human papillomavirus (HPV). The percentage reaches nearly 50% when the age range is dropped to women aged 14 to 34, with prevalence increasing on a per year basis within the range. After 24, outside the age of greatest sexual activity, the rate of infection decreases.
HPV is known to bring about anything from minor skin irritants to being a cause of cervical cancer. About 100 different variants of the virus have been identified, of which approximately thirty are sexually transmitted. There are about a dozen known types that can result in a woman developing cervical cancer.
Doctors and researchers concur that the only way to correctly diagnose the virus, and to ensure that any embryonic cancer growth is detected, is for women to have a yearly diagnostic test known as a Pap Smear. A Pap Smear is able to detect the presence of abnormal cells that could be a precursor of cervical cancer. As long as testing is done on a regular basis the chances of a woman dying from cervical cancer are reduced dramatically.
One only need compare the incidences of death from cervical cancer between countries in the developed world where Pap Smears are available to those of countries where they are not to see what a difference they make. While around 3600 women will die from cervical cancer in the United States, hundreds of thousands die worldwide with the majority of those deaths occurring in countries without proper gynaecological treatment.
While a Pap Smear can be used to catch HPV after the fact, it would be better still if there were a means of preventing its transmission in the first place. Since abstinence can't be enforced except through turning every male into a eunuch at the first sign of sexual maturity, other more valid options are available.
The regular use of a condom offers about a 70% chance of preventing the virus' spread, plus there are assorted antibacterial creams that can be utilized, which will help. Remember that sexually transmitted diseases are not limited to the genital areas only. HPV has been seen as a factor in anal, throat, and mouth cancers, so precautions need to be taken during all sexual activity.
Best of all is the new development of a vaccine that has just received FDA approval in 2006. Gardasil has been approved for women aged 9 to 29. Not only is it effective against two of the cancer-causing sexually transmitted variants, it's also effective for use against non-sexually transmitted types of the virus that are responsible for plantar warts and other uncomfortable skin conditions. So don't go flying off the handle about encouraging pre-teens to have sex — it's just a vaccine that has a multitude of positive uses.
If there is something that should be making people upset about this vaccine or about the report in general, it's why the other half of the equation hasn't been tested or studied. In most cases of heterosexual relationships it's not just a woman involved — for a woman to contract HPV she has to have caught it from someone.
But instead of examining or testing men for the virus, medical research has focused its efforts on women when it comes to prevention. Why not look at ways that men can prevent the transmission as well? Women may be the ones most at risk so there is an obvious need for them to be tested for that reason, but why not go to the source of the risk for testing and prevention?
Yes, a man can wear a condom and cut down on the chances of passing a sexually transmitted disease, but why not develop a vaccine for men? Wouldn't it increase the chances of safety if men as well as women had secure preventive techniques?
But it's just like with birth control. The onus for prevention is still placed squarely on the shoulders of the woman and not the man, even though a pregnancy can't happen under normal circumstances without both participating. The old line – if men could get pregnant think of the advances in reproductive technology that would have been made by now – when applied to sexually transmitted diseases becomes even more appropriate; men do get and transmit disease just as readily as women.
Maybe it would help men take more care if they knew facts like certain types of HPV are responsible for over 50% of penile cancers? Although less common than cervical and vaginal cancer, it still occurs. But since no studies have been done on the incidence of men with HPV those figures could be higher. If we don't know how many men have HPV how can we truly tell how many cases of penile cancer have been caused by it?
You'd think the lessons we've learned from AIDS, that sexually transmitted diseases don't discriminate, would have been absorbed by now. Even though news stories are full of facts and figures about how women are affected by HPV it doesn't mean men aren't part of the picture.
Even if they were to find that the virus has little or no bearing on the health of men, which they won't because of the previously mentioned penile cancer link, shouldn't men take it upon themselves to bear some of the responsibility? Could you really live with yourself knowing that because of your carelessness someone you loved died of cervical cancer?
Sexually transmitted diseases don't have to place anyone at risk, no matter one's level of activity. All that needs to be done is ensure proper education, protection, research not limited to only one gender, and everybody taking responsibility for their actions. But somehow that simple solution seems to keep eluding us and until we achieve it people will continue to die for no reason, and there is no excuse for that.