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Most Young Adults in New Sexual Relationship Have HPV


Young adults who are in a new sexual relationship have more than a 50-50 chance of being infected with human papillomavirus (HPV), according to a new study at McGill University. The new couples study shows that 56 percent of young adults in a sexual relationship lasting six months or less had HPV, and nearly half of them (44 percent) had the type of HPV that causes cancer.

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) that is passed between sexual partners most often during vaginal and anal sex, but also during oral sex and genital-to-genital contact. Approximately 20 million Americans are infected with HPV, and another 6 million people become newly infected each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

There are many types of HPV, many of which can cause genital warts, and others that are associated with cancer. About 12,000 women get cervical cancer from HPV in the United States each year; vulvar, vaginal, anal, and penile cancer are also associated with HPV and are less common. (Note: January is National Cervical Health Awareness month.) The CDC reports that about 1 percent of sexually active adults in the United States have genital warts at any one time. The types of HPV that can cause genital warts are different from those that can cause cancer, and there is no way to know who will develop cancer or other health problems once people are infected.

The groundbreaking study conducted at McGill University in collaboration with researchers from McGill and Universite de Montreal/Centre Hospitalier de l’Universite de Montreal (CHUM), is the first large-scale study of HPV infection among couples during the early stages of their sexual relationships. This is a critical time period to study, as it is when transmission of the infection is most likely to occur.

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Participants in the study, which is still ongoing, are young women who are attending university or college in Montreal, and their male partners. All the participants complete questionnaires regarding their sexual history and provide genital specimens for laboratory testing.

The results of the study indicate that there is a high probability of HPV transmission between sexual partners: when one partner had HPV, the other partner also had the infection in 42 percent of cases. Dr. Ann Burchell, the project coordinator, noted that “these results build on our knowledge that HPV infection is very common among young adults, and underline the importance of prevention programs for HPV-associated diseases such as cervical cancer screening and HPV vaccination.”

Vaccinations for HPV are available: for girls and women, two vaccines (Cervarix and Gardasil) are recommended for 11 and 12-year-old girls and for females 13 through 26 years of age who did not receive the shots when they were younger. Both protect against cervical cancer, while Gardasil also helps prevent genital warts. For boys and men, Gardasil protects against most genital warts and is available for males 9 through 26 years of age.

The Canadian study is the first to investigate the transmission of HPV among young adults in a new sexual relationship. Dr. Burchell commented that “Our estimates of the HPV transmission probability will be of use to other researchers who use modeling to project the public health and economic impact of HPV vaccination strategies.”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
McGill University news release, Jan. 14, 2010