HPV and Cervical Cancer – How Much Do You Really Know?

“I want to be one less, o-n-e-l-e-s-s!” Is this song permanently lodged in your brain? Do the words “Tell Someone” have new meaning? You have pharmaceutical company Merck to thank. These slogans are from its commercials aiming to raise awareness about the link between HPV and cervical cancer and Merck’s HPV vaccine, Gardasil.

Before this connection was discovered, we didn’t know what caused cervical cancer and the only way to know you had it was through a pap test. Kim, 43, was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1993. Throughout her treatment, there was no mention of HPV and it wasn’t until years later (after beating the cancer) that she realized the cause. “I didn’t even know HPV caused cervical cancer until I saw those commercials; my doctor didn’t even tell me when I had it,” Kim says. “I had never even heard of HPV until the commercials and I read an article about it and said, ‘Oh, I guess that’s what I had.'”

Many women don’t know much about HPV until it affects them, even though as many as 80 percent will acquire HPV at some point in their lives.

In a 2005 Health Information National Trends Survey, only 40 percent of women respondents had heard of HPV and less than 20 percent knew it could lead to cervical cancer. Think back to 2005, before the commercials worked into your consciousness, how much did you know about HPV? Probably nothing, which is scary, considering about 10 women die from cervical cancer in America everyday, according to the American Cancer Society.

There are women who develop cervical cancer who have only had one partner and women who have had several partners. Discovering the link between a virus and cervical cancer is extraordinary, but it shouldn’t lead people to believe those who develop cervical cancer were reckless with their sexual health. Here are some facts about HPV and cervical cancer the 30 second TV commercials don’t include-but you should know:

1. What are the ways I can get HPV? HPV can be contracted through almost any sexual contact, sometimes even oral sex. Condoms decrease the risk by about 70 percent, but since any genital contact can spread HPV, the skin not covered by a condom puts you at risk. Most people with HPV show no symptoms. This means that practically anyone-from your husband to your one-night-stand-could pass along HPV.

2. What strains of HPV cause cervical cancer? There are about a hundred different types of HPV, but only a few cause cancer. Most cases will clear up on their own with no treatment. Gardasil protects against types 16 and 18, which cause about 70 percent of cervical cancer cases, and types 6 and 11, which are responsible for about 90 percent of genital warts cases.

3. How can I protect myself against HPV and cervical cancer? Condoms can help protect against HPV and the Gardasil vaccine will be a big help against it as long as you don’t already have the strains that cause cervical cancer.

The American Cancer Society outlines other risk factors for catching HPV and developing cervical cancer as well. They include smoking (which weakens your immune system), having sex at an early age, many sexual partners, a partner who has had many partners, sex with uncircumcised males, HIV or Chlamydia, poor diet or family history of cervical cancer. Doctors say women will not develop cervical cancer without first contracting HPV, so the best line of defense is to not get HPV at all.

4. What’s the deal with the HPV vaccine? Gardasil was approved by the FDA for girls aged 9-26. They recommend getting vaccinated before you’re sexually active, since the longer you wait the more likely it is that you’ll already have HPV. The vaccine is given as three separate shots over six months and costs $360, not including the cost of the doctor’s office visit. Most insurance companies cover the costs, but check before you are vaccinated. Merck also has a plan for qualified women to be vaccinated for free. So if you’re uninsured or your insurance doesn’t cover it, talk to your doctor about this program. Many Planned Parenthood centers also carry Gardasil and the price will depend on your insurance coverage.

5. I’m over 26, can I still get vaccinated? As of right now, Gardasil is only approved for women aged 9-26, so your insurance company most likely won’t cover it if you are older than 26. Further testing is being done for other age groups so in the future that might be expanded. Talk to your doctor if you are over 26 and still interested in being vaccinated to find out if he or she will vaccinate you.

6. I already have HPV, so Gardasil won’t help me, right? Actually, there are many strains of HPV, so, even if you know you already have it, talk to your doctor because you can still get protection from the other cancer-causing strains with Gardasil.

7. I’m only sleeping with one person. I don’t need to be vaccinated, do I? It’s not a bad idea. It’s entirely possible that your husband or boyfriend could pass HPV on to you from a previous relationship. Also, I know we hate to think of these possibilities, but Gardasil can be helpful if your partner cheats on you or if you are raped by someone with HPV.

8. What’s the downside to Gardasil? There are some negatives to this vaccine that you should consider. First, there may be side effects such as pain or swelling where you were injected, nausea, fever or dizziness. However, the side effects are pretty rare. Also, since the vaccine doesn’t protect against all types of cervical cancer, you still have to get regular pap tests (so no saying goodbye to your yearly gyno appointments). Gardasil also does not protect against any other STDs, so protection is still very necessary during sex and it will not clear up an existing infection of HPV or cervical cancer. The high cost of the vaccine can also be a problem so be sure to talk to your insurance company and doctor to find out how much it will cost before you’re injected.

In the end, it’s up to you to weigh the pros and cons of the HPV vaccine, but hopefully now you can do so with a little more information than a Tell Someone commercial provides.