The 2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was divided between Harald zur Hausen, who determined that the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) causes cancer, and Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier, who discovered the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). Zur Hausen, who researches for the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg, discovered the link between HPV and cervical cancer in the 1980s. The link between HPV and cervical cancer has become well-known as a result of the recent publicity given to the HPV vaccine.
But what is HPV?
HPV: The Basics
HPV is a virus with more than 100 forms. About 30 of these can cause cancer, and not just cervical – zur Hausen’s discovery – but also cancers of the vulva, vagina, and anus, all in women. The forms of HPV that can cause cancer are termed “high-risk,” and usually do not manifest with visible symptoms. These are sexually transmitted infections passed through genital contact. HPV differs from other sexually transmitted diseases in that (a) it is caused by viruses (others, like Gonorrhea, result from bacteria) and (b) it is transmitted through mere contact: penetration is not the only precursor.
The forms that do not cause cancer – “low-risk” types of HPV – may have a visible side effect: warts (also called papillomas, hence the virus’s name). These are series of raised or flat bumps that appear on the genitals, anus, groin, or thigh. HPV is not only transmitted through sexual contact, in rare cases it is passed from an infected mother to her child during birth. HPV contracted this way can cause the child to develop warts on his or her vocal chords and other areas in a disease called recurrent respiratory papillomatosis.
Can HPV Be Prevented?
There are several ways to prevent the sexually transmitted forms of HPV. The first, and most obvious, is using condoms during sex, since HPV can be transmitted through mere genital contact. There is also an HPV vaccine, administered as three shots over six months. This vaccine targets the four forms of HPV most likely to present with warts or cause cervical cancer. Based on the math – there are over 100 forms of HPV and the vaccine prevents four – this is not a foolproof solution, but it is a step toward preventing contraction.