We Need To Talk About HPV

It’s time to expose this prolific virus, warts and all!

Human papillomavirus. HPV. Or to put it more simply, genital warts. Decidedly unpleasant and a right bitch to get rid of, HPV is one of the most commonly diagnosed sexually transmitted infections in the gay community, and in the world.

In most cases, it’s not life threatening. But it’s painful, prolonged and, obviously, embarrassing. It can go on for months, sometimes years, and can lead to rifts in romantic relationships, not to mention sexual self esteem issues.

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On a more serious note, if left untreated it can lead to complications, one of the most severe being anal cancer. “Anal cancer”. Those two words together are just so unpleasant aren’t they. In fact there’s possibly nothing more unpleasant. Which might be why no-one’s talking about it!

HPV is an unwelcome guest from our American cousins. A bit like Donald Trump (in fact, there are several things Donald Trump has in common with genital warts, but we won’t go into that right now). It is the most common STI in the United States. Statistically, 80% of sexually active adults there will contract it at some point in their lifetimes. 45% of young adults in the US currently have HPV. It is also extremely easy to transmit, and can be passed on through any kind of skin-on-skin contact. It is the most frequently transmitted STI in the world. As is often the case with these things, no-one knows exactly where it came from, or why.

It was first put under the microscope when a spate of young women started getting vaginal warts. This was followed by straight men finding warts on their penises, and finally, gay men finding warts on their penises and anuses. An interesting turn of events! Usually we’re trendsetters in the STI department but not this time. It was the bloody hetties’ fault! No doubt it’s god’s punishment for all that unnatural reproductive sex.

It then spread to Europe and across the globe, and scientists started to get a better idea of what it involves. It’s basically a skin condition. It attacks the sensitive skin around the genital areas, like the soft bits of the foreskin on a man’s penis, for example. If there’s a tiny cut in the skin, which there often is, especially after all the natural, wear-and-tear caused by sex, the virus will infect what’s called the epithelial tissue. It then settles in and starts living out its horrid little warty life.

90% of cancers are linked to HPV. It most commonly causes cancer in the vagina, penis, anus, mouth or throat, and it’s thought that 27% of new cancer diagnoses are caused by HPV. This is a fairly recently discovered fact, and governments both in the US and Europe have started offering free HPV vaccines to pubescent girls in schools to prevent vaginal cancer.

Despite an equal risk of anal cancer for gay men, LGBT teens are not offered the vaccine in schools. This is because our governments still see gay sex as icky and prefer to pretend it doesn’t exist, putting our lives at risk in the process. It is also still not taught in sex education classes, so many young people don’t even know what it is. Yet another example of how the British sex education system is woefully inadequate. But that’s another feature for another time. Seriously, watch this space.

Anyway, due to lack of education, lack of precautions and lack of the right treatments, people are suffering. There are a lot of people in bathroom mirrors going “ew what the hell is THAT” and the virus continues to prevail. However, there is a bright side (yes, a bright side to anal warts, hear us out).

It’s treatable! And curable! And preventable! London sexual health clinics are now offering the vaccine for free. Mortimer Market Centre in Warren Street is offering it specifically for gay men. Just go in and ask! And if you’ve already got it, all STI clinics offer admittedly unpleasant but effective treatments in the form of creams or freezing.

The prevalence of something as nasty and potentially serious as HPV shows that the way our society treats and talks about sex and STIs is still fundamentally flawed. Us Brits, however liberal and bohemian we profess to be, still haven’t quite shaken that Victorian stiff-upper lip prudishness. So next time you’re worried or wondering about something sexual, have a chat with a friend about it! Tell people what’s going on. We need to get our sex lives out there for everyone to see. Warts and all!

• The Mortimer Market Centre is at Capper Street, WC1R 6JB. To make an appointment, head to cnwl.nhs.uk, or call 020 3317 5100

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