Not all people who contract HPV will develop cervical cancer, and only one percent of all individuals who have been infected with HPV have genital warts.(4) Therefore, even if a person is free of warts, he or she might still have HPV. There are over one hundred different types of HPV(5) and most of those that cause genital warts are not associated with cancer(6), but one person can have multiple types at once. Because the virus is widespread and can remain latent for a considerable time, clinicians recommend a yearly pap smear for any woman who has been sexually active, even if she is now abstinent. HPV DNA tests are now available as well, but these can only be used on women.
To give you an idea of how large the problem is, according to the Medical Institute for Sexual Health, "Approximately 75 percent of sexually active individuals are now, or have previously been, infected with HPV."(7) The National Institutes of Health reported that, "HPV infection of the genital tract can be detected in approximately 30 percent of sexually active adolescent girls and young women."(8)
One reason it has spread so quickly is that people are unaware the virus can be contracted through any genital contact (genital, oral, or by means of the hands). It should also be said that many people who contract HPV will not be harmed by it. Although it is incurable, this does not mean that it is permanent, like herpes. Many strains of HPV are not considered to be "high risk," and the body usually fights HPV off on its own. Other times, the virus may remain latent for decades. A teenage girl may contract HPV and not suffer health effects from the infection until her thirties or forties.
Why don't we hear much about it? There are two reasons. First, the full effects of the epidemic will not be known for over a decade. HPV sometimes manifests itself through warts, but more often the infection is sub-clinical and invisible to the naked eye. Most teens who have HPV show no symptoms, and so they do not bother to get checked for it. Even when they do get checked, the doctor's colposcope may miss 20 to 70 percent of genital wart infestations.(9)
The second reason we do not hear much about HPV is that it is the Achilles' heel of the "safe sex" campaign. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), "Studies which have attempted to assess male condom benefit for women have generally found no evidence of protection against infection."(10) According to the American Cancer Society, "Condoms cannot protect against infection with HPV."(11)
____________________________________________________________________(1) Joe McIlhaney, M.D., Safe Sex (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker House Books, 1992), 23.(2) Sex is a Choice. Be Informed (Grand Rapids, Michigan: The Core-Alliance Group, Inc., 2000).