OakLeaf Medical Network Healthy Viewpoints, Winter 2003
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Dr. Steven D. Stenzel

HPV and Cervical Cancer, Cause and Prevention

By Steven D. Stenzel, MD
Stenzel Clinic for WomenÕs Health, Eau Claire

The cause for cervical cancer and pre-cancer, also called dysplasia, had been sought for decades, but it is now known that Human Papilloma Virus, (HPV), a family of skin affecting viruses, is the cause. The HPV is transmitted through sexual intercourse.

Following exposure (through intercourse) to these viruses, the surface cells of the vulva, vaginal walls and cervix can react in several ways. Skin tag-like growths called papillomas may develop. These are also called venereal warts. Or, the HPV may be “stored” in the genital cells and not show its effect until many years later. The last possibility is the altered growth of cells leading to cervical dysplasia. Specific testing and treatments are available for the problems that HPV causes, including evaluation of abnormal Pap smears and topical treatment of genital warts.

Nearly 75% of sexually active individuals between the ages of 15 and 35 have HPV. The vast majority are unaware because no symptoms occur. A key protective factor in the prevention of dysplasia is a strong immune system. These are the cells in the body that interact with viruses. A balanced diet, exercise and a healthy lifestyle promote a strong immune system. Smoking is the most controllable activity that harms the immune system.

After first exposure to the virus, a strong immune system “clears” the body of the virus over time, usually by age 30-35. It is this clearing that has allowed new Pap smear screening guidelines to be established by the National Institute of Health, the American Cancer Society and the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology. The new guidelines are:

  • Annual Pap smear screening beginning three years after first
    sexual activity or at age 21.
  • After age 30, the interval can be extended to every three years if there have been three normal yearly Pap smears, a negative HPV test and a monogamous relationship
  • Pap smears are not needed after age 65 or following a hysterectomy (with removal of the cervix) for benign conditions

Remember, the Pap smear is a small portion of a “woman’s wellness examination”, which is usually performed on an annual basis. In the future, a vaccine for specific HPV viral sub-types will be available.

HPV is a very common sexually transmitted viral infection. The best protection is a strong immune system and the use of condoms. Talk to your personal healthcare provider or visit these factual websites:
www.acs.org (American Cancer Society)
www.acog.org (American College of Obstetrics & Gynecology)
www.ashastd.org (American Social Health Association)

For more information, or to schedule an appointment
with Dr. Stenzel » 715.831.6100 Stenzel Clinic for Women’s Health