Ms. Opinionated: Welp, I've Got HPV. What Now?

Andi Zeisler
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Andi Zeisler is the cofounder of Bitch Media and the author of We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement. You can find her on Twitter.

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Welcome to Ms. Opinionated, our weekly advice column dealing with questions of life, love, feminism, and pop culture. Submit your anonymous questions here. This week, Andi Zeisler talks about HPV. 

Dear Ms. Opinionated,

I recently got the results of my HPV test. Not only do I have the virus, but I also have a lesion on my cervical collar. Luckily, the doctor found that it’s very early, and told me, “You really don’t have to worry.” I already scheduled my appointment to remove the lesion, so that doesn’t really freak me out.

What does freak me out, though, is that since I’ve been sexually active with both women and men, I may have infected my female partners with HPV. Is this plausible? I’m not going to have sex with anyone until this matter is clarified.

Even thought I will get answers soon from my gynecologist, there are a lot of informational gaps about HPV. I wanted to ask about this publicly so that everyone can learn more about HPV.

Best regards, Bunny

Dear Bunny,

Thanks for writing and offering your story as a chance for everyone to learn a little more about HPV!

Not that any sexually transmitted disease is a regular topic of watercooler conversation, but HPV has proved particularly tricky to discuss comprehensively. With about 20 million people currently infected, it’s extremely common. With more than 100 different viral strains (not all of which are sexually transmitted), it’s prolific. And because it often doesn’t present with any symptoms, it can seem like less of a big-deal issue than something like, say, syphilis.

Part of HPV’s PR problem is that it became a political and media football almost as soon as a vaccine was approved. In 2006, the Centers for Disease Control began recommending that all girls aged 11-12 receive the approved vaccine Gardasil; this led to an outcry among dummies, who seemed to think that Gardasil was some magical preteen sluttery shot that would cause all 11-year-old girls to start having sex immediately and indiscriminately. Added to that were reports of side effects (nausea, dizziness, fainting) that were blown out of proportion by mass media. 

These days, the CDC advises that all girls and boys aged 11-12 receive the three-dose course of the vaccine—but, according to the official numbers, cooperation is slow going. In part, this is because the vaccines (Gardasil is recommended for both girls and boys; a second vaccine, Cervarix, is available to girls) are still associated with sexual activity. Fred Wyand, a spokesman for the American Sexual Health Association, has noted that “Some parents think ‘my child is not at risk for STDs, so this isn’t really applicable to us.’…”But we know that everybody is at risk for STDs, especially HPV.”

And what we also know about HPV is that it can be a deadly motherfucker, with some strains responsible for genital warts, cervical and oropharyngeal cancers, and, more rarely, cancers of the anus, vulva, vagina, and penis. So good on you, Bunny, for getting tested. (If you’re of a pre–HPV-vaccine generation of sexually active people and you haven’t been tested, get there.)

To your concerns about having spread things around: By now, you’ve probably spoken with your gynecologist and realized that, yes, it’s more than possible that you passed the virus along to not only your female partners but the men you were intimate with as well. Men are often overlooked in discussions about HPV, since the focus on the virus often centers on its role in the development of cervical cancer in women. In fact, though HPV will often clear the bodies of men on its own, in some cases it can lead to some seriously unpleasant business, including the aforementioned genital warts and cancers of the penis and anus. According to the Centers for Disease Control, these are pretty rare outcomes, but nobody wants to take that chance, right?  

So the first thing to do, if you haven’t already, is let both the dudes and the gals you’ve been intimate with know right away that they might have been exposed, and advise them to get checked out. And be thorough in contacting past partners—it can take months or even years after contact with an infected person for signs of HPV (like genital warts) to show up. There might be more than one awkward text chat in your future, but, if it makes you feel any better, chances are that if your previous partners have been exposed to HPV, it may not have come from you—according to a 1997 American Journal of Medicine article, roughly three in four Americans between the ages of 15 and 49 have been infected with genital HPV. It’s basically the venereal-disease equivalent of Michael Jackson’s Thriller or Madonna’s Greatest Hits.

As for whether or not to have sex during this time, the CDC has a great fact sheet on what you should know once you’ve tested positive for HPV—including the fact that condoms and other external barrier methods, while helpful, don’t fully protect against the spread of the virus. And Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City published an infographic addressing the heightened risks of throat and neck cancers among people under 50—HPV is the leading cause of throat cancer in this age group—with lists of symptoms and prevention tips.

Best of luck to you, and thanks again for sharing your experience for the benefit of Bitch readers.

Do you have a question for advice columnists Andi ZeislerSydette Harry, or Nicole GeorgesSend it in! All questions will remain anonymous. Read previous installments of our feminist advice column

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8 Comments Have Been Posted

It is infuriating how little

It is infuriating how little information people are given regarding this disease...if it's so common and so potentially dangerous to women (cervical cancer) and men (throat cancer)...why aren't we being educated about it?

I had a run-in with HPV. My

I had a run-in with HPV. My doc found pre-cancerous cells. She said that they had to be removed, so I got the surgery. Later I found out that in most of those types of cases, your immune system can take care of the pre-cancerous cells for you and I did not need to act so quickly. Every pap smear has been fine since then, but I also eat healthier and try to maintain my immune system. What's worse is that before I knew, the doctor was pushing the vaccine on me, even though I was maybe about 26 at the time...and most likely already had it. So you have to be weary about what the docs are telling you. The 2009 issue of Censored (a book series that publishes breaking news stories that didn't get much coverage) had a great piece on it by Judith Siers-Poisson. I'm not sure if this is the same article that was in Censored, but still interesting:

conversely, my buddy who just

conversely, my buddy who just separated from the only person she'd had sex with and was with for 13 years had to convince her doctor to give it to her, and of course insurance didn't cover it even though the chances she was ever exposed to it were practically nil.

they were maybe trying to get you to get it while insurance would still cover it, because getting the vaccine after exposure won't hurt you and if you hadn't been exposed it's be worth getting.

I cant stand all this people,

I cant stand all this people, men are inferior to women in all aspects. A woman can do anything she wants and men cant even prepare a sandwhich. The only reason I have 2 boyfriends is because of C-O-C-K-S

haha, wtf?

haha, wtf?

testing positive

I recently tested positive for one of the more cancerous strains of HPV on my last pap. Told my doctor I have not been with anyone other then my husband for the past 15 years, so unless he's been out having fun without me, I don't see how this could be possible. Plus I've had regular HPV and std test for years and never tested positive. She told me that the virus can lay dormant in our body for years and then one day just show up. She said she sees this all the time and most cases the body fights the virus off on it's own.
I will not be giving my kids the vaccine after I read about the negative side effects, including deaths it caused.

you might want to check out

you might want to check out the actual reports on the vaers website (which is where those death statistics come from). I read through a bunch of them a bit ago and none of them were convincing. the closest to an actual possibly caused by the vaccine death was a person who died of a cardiac incident shortly after getting it, but she'd had a dangerous heart disease already.

the sketchiest one was an entry where the person writing had -heard- that a girl died in the ER within a month of having gotten the vaccine. the writer didn't know the girl or witness the incident and didn't say how the person actually died.

most of the entries were on the sketchier side. you have to remember that anyone can write anything in the vaers. it's totally self reported and there is no one checking for causation.

It's my understanding that

It's my understanding that while the vaccines protect against the two most common strains of HPV that cause cervical and other cancers (16 and 18), they do not protect against every strain that causes cancer-- So even if you've been vaccinated, you should still talk with your healthcare provider about getting regular PAP screenings.

See the section under the heading <i>What does the vaccine not protect against? </i> on this page:

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