A long-term study on human papillomavirus reveals that more than half of sexually active women in the U.S. will become infected if they have “regular sexual relations,” according to the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). The study, which followed 800 young women since 1990, shows that women increase their risk of contracting the virus “ten fold with each sexual partner they have per month.” HPV is transmitted through sexual contact, including skin-to-skin transmission through any mucous membranes, both in heterosexual and homosexual partners. Currently, 20 million men and women are infected with HPV, and 50 – 75 percent of sexually active men and women will become infected at some point in their lives. Contrary to earlier beliefs, the study found that HPV might not be a life-long infection. Up to 90 percent of the women were free of the virus within three years, although many became reinfected.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, most HPV cases present no signs or symptoms, and can lead to cervical lesions that may become cancerous. The JAMA study found that only 30 percent of infected women developed cervical lesions, whereas in the past doctors believed that a woman diagnosed with HPV was “certain” to develop such lesions. Smoking increased the risk of developing cervical lesions. The use of oral contraceptives and condoms reduced the risk of contracting HPV. However, abstinence is the only 100 percent effective method to prevent HPV transmission. In the study, oral contraceptives were only 50 percent effective, and earlier research has shown that condoms are often unreliable (they can break or slip off) and do not provide enough skin coverage to prevent HPV transmission even when used properly. Doctors recommend that all sexually active women obtain regular pap smears to detect cervical lesions before they become cancerous.
For more information on HPV, check out the Centers for Disease Control Fact Sheet.