HPV stands for human papillomavirus, and it’s by far the most common sexually transmitted disease in the world. In fact, the virus is so common that almost all sexually active people will contract it at some point in their lives.
Most types of HPV are not dangerous, and many infections clear up on their own after a year or two, but a small percentage of people will become infected with a strain of HPV that leads to cancer, including cancers of the cervix, penis, anus and vagina, among others.
While HPV itself can’t be treated, those who become infected with one of the high-risk strains do have some treatment options aimed at preventing their HPV from causing cancer, and medical experts say everyone under a certain age should get a vaccine that can prevent HPV from spreading.
Learn more about this common STD, including who is most at risk, how dangerous the virus can be and where in the country HPV is most likely to lead to cancer.
What Is HPV?
Scientists have so far identified more than 200 strains of human papillomavirus, but only about 40 of them can infect the genitals. Low-risk genital HPV strains can cause things like genital warts, while high-risk types can lead to cancer. In fact, about 70% of cervical cancers are caused by just two types of high-risk HPV, types 16 and 18.
Nearly 80 million Americans are currently living with HPV, and as many as 90% of infections clear up on their own. But when HPV goes untreated, it can cause cells in the infected areas of the body to mutate and become cancerous. While this usually happens in the cervix, HPV causes a majority of cancers in the penis, vagina, vulva, anus and the back of the throat.
The good news is that in addition to abstaining from sex or practicing safer sex, another tool is available to help prevent the spread of HPV — vaccinations. Federal health regulators recommend the HPV vaccine for everyone around age 11 or 12, but adults up to age 45 can get vaccinated.
Who Is Most Likely to Get HPV?
Because most cases of HPV clear up on their own and most people don’t know they have the virus, detailed data on the prevalence in the overall American populace and how that’s changed over time is difficult to come by.
Men are more likely to be infected with genital HPV than women, and African-Americans have the highest rates among ethnic groups.
Prevalence of genital HPV by race or ethnicity, age 18-59 (percentage infected)
HPV & Cancer
Over time, as much as 30 years, some types of HPV can lead to cancer if the virus goes untreated. Between 70% and 90% of cervical cancers are caused by HPV, and the virus is responsible for a majority of cancers in several other parts of the body, including the penis, vulva, anus, vagina and back of the throat.
Across the globe, cervical cancer causes about 7.5% of all cancer deaths in women. That rate is lower in the U.S., but several states have distressingly high rates of cancer caused by HPV.
HPV-caused cancer rate (cases diagnosed per 100,000 people)
HPV Vaccination Rates
The CDC recommends every young person gets two doses of the HPV vaccine by the time they’re 12 years old, but a majority of adolescents have not received both of the recommended doses. Use of the vaccine is rising, though, with the CDC noting that vaccine rates climbed about 5% between 2016 and 2017.
Less than half of young people are totally up to date on the HPV vaccine, though this rate varies widely depending on the state in question.
HPV vaccine coverage rate by state (percentage of population 13-17 up to date on doses)
HPV is the single most common sexually transmitted disease in the world, and it’s not even close. The good news is most infections clear up on their own within a couple of years, but the bad news is that infections that don’t clear up can cause permanent health problems, including many types of cancer that can be deadly. But there’s another piece of good news: HPV can be prevented with two doses of a vaccine, and that vaccine is even available for adults.
For those who suspect they have HPV and want to make sure they prevent long-term health problems and don’t pass along the infection to their sexual partners, it’s important to get tested for HPV and find out whether you have it and, if so, which type.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics, Prevalence of HPV in Adults Aged 18–69: United States, 2011–2014. (2017). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/databriefs/db280.htm
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, National, Regional, State, and Selected Local Area Vaccination Coverage Among Adolescents Aged 13–17 Years — United States, 2017. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/67/wr/mm6733a1.htm#T3_down
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HPV and Cancer, HPV-Associated Cancer Rates by State. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/hpv/statistics/state/
- World Health Organization, Human papillomavirus (HPV) and cervical cancer. (2019). Retrieved from https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/human-papillomavirus-(hpv)-and-cervical-cancer