HIV might still be the most feared sexually transmitted disease, but it’s not necessarily the easiest to contract. Human papillomavirus is one of the leading killers of women worldwide—and a condom is only 60% effective at stopping it.
If sex ed classes have managed to teach anyone anything, it’s the power of the condom. Condoms are supposed to make intimacy safe—from pregnancy, from HIV, and from a host of other sexually transmitted infections.
The Condom Misconception
But condoms have one huge failing that often goes overlooked: they can’t fully protect against the Human papillomavirus, better known as HPV. It doesn’t sound pretty, it doesn’t look pretty, and especially for women, HPV is a silent killer that can lie dormant for years unnoticed before it strikes.
The HPV Nightmare
HPV is the most commonly transmitted STI in the United States. It’s actually a catch-all category for nearly 150 strains of similar viruses, many of which cause nasty looking warts.
A Prolific Virus
HPV is so common, almost all sexually active men and women contract it at some point in their lives. The virus is spread by intimate skin-to-skin contact, meaning that anywhere two bodies touch, HPV can be spread—which makes condoms only somewhat effective in preventing it.
Contracting the Virus
HPV can be passed from person to person, even when the infected individual has no signs or symptoms of the virus. It can take years for any symptoms to show up after being infected with HPV, and some people never experience any symptoms at all.
Ties to Cancer
HPV is none too pretty to look at, but for women especially, the virus can prove deadly. It’s closely tied with cervical cancer, which is a leading killer of women. Two types of the virus, HPV types 16 and 18, account for nearly 70% of all cervical cancer cases.
Danger to Women
Women are also at a much higher risk of contracting the virus than men. Male-to-female transmission has a 5% higher rate of occurrence than female-to-male transmission.
It can be nearly impossible to tell whether or not a sexual partner has been infected with HPV. The only way to be 100% sure you don’t get the virus is to maintain complete abstinence—which means no kissing or even touching of anyone’s no-no parts.
Since abstinence isn’t always a possibility, health practitioners encourage regular testing for individuals with any sexual history and preventative vaccination for girls especially before they become sexually active. Monogamy and maintaining an honest sexual history also help prevent transmission.
The Harsh Truth
79 million Americans are currently estimated to have HPV, and 14 million new cases occur every year. Catch-up vaccinations are recommended for straight males up to age 21 and straight females and gay or bisexual males up to age 26.