We’re all infected. Well, maybe not all, but about 70 percent of us. No, this isn’t a promo for “The Walking Dead,” it’s the result of a new study about the human papilloma virus (HPV).
That’s right. Of every three people, two of them are infected with some form of HPV. We’re talking about both men and women, by the way. However, this news isn’t as depressing as it might seem. As it turns out, many forms of HPV appear to be benign. Some may even act to keep the dangerous forms from harming us.
Researchers recently completed the largest and most detailed study done to date on HPV in healthy American adults. Using publicly available information from the National Institutes of Health’s Human Microbiome Project, researchers from New York University’s (NYU) Langone Medical Center studied the tissue DNA of 103 people aged 18 to 80. They found that almost two-thirds of them carried one or more of 109 different strains of HPV.
In total, there are 148 strains of HPV. Of those, a nasty handful are known to cause most cases of cervical cancer, cancers of the anus, penis, vulva and vagina, some throat and mouth cancers, as well as lesions and warts.
The other strains of HPV, while common, apparently don’t cause disease. In fact, according to this study, they may be serving to protect our bodies from the bad forms of HPV via a complex internal dance of viral checks and balances. More research into this phenomenon will certainly follow.
“Our study offers initial and broad evidence of a seemingly ‘normal’ HPV viral biome in people that does not necessarily cause disease and that could very well mimic the highly varied bacterial environment in the body, or microbiome, which is key to maintaining good health,” said senior study investigator, NYU Langone pathologist Zhiheng Pei, MD, PhD.
The study’s findings revealed the following:
- Most study participants had HPV infections in the skin (61 percent); then vagina (41 percent), mouth (30 percent), and gut (17 percent).
- Of the 71 study participants infected with HPV, 42 (59 percent) had HPV in only one organ, 22 (31 percent) had it in two organs, and seven (10 percent) had it in three; none had HPV in all four organs tested.
- Skin samples contained one or more of 80 different types of HPV. Of those, 40 types were found only in the skin.
- Vaginal tissue revealed 43 different HPV types. Twenty of those were found only in vaginal tissue.
- Mouth tissue contained up to 33 HPV types. Five of those types were found only in the mouth.
- Gut tissue revealed six types of HPV, all of which were also found in other organs.
- Only four of the 103 people studied were infected with HPV 16 or HPV 18, the strains that cause cancer.
“[T]he HPV ‘community’ in healthy people is surprisingly more vast and complex than previously thought,” said the study’s lead researcher, Yingfei Ma, Ph.D. “[M]uch further monitoring and research is needed to determine how the various non-cancer-causing HPV genotypes interact with the cancer-causing strains, such as genotypes 16 and 18, and what causes these strains to trigger cancer.”
While this is mostly good news, don’t relax completely. Every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 14 million people are newly infected with the forms of HPV that cause or trigger cancer. HPV is the most commonly sexually transmitted infection in the United States.
Overall, most HPV strains are transmitted sexually, which is why the vaccines developed to combat the dangerous strains are given to children in their pre-sexual years. However, there’s growing evidence showing transmission occurs by mere skin-to-skin contact as well.
Unless you plan to live inside a hermetically sealed plastic bag, you’re likely to be infected with some form of HPV in your lifetime. Chances are, if you’re sexually active, it’s already happened.
Photo credit (all images): Thinkstock