WebMD Medical News
Louise Chang, MD
Jan. 14, 2010 -- Cancer-causing human papillomavirus (HPV) spreads readily
and quickly among partners in new sexual relationships, new research
Scientists at McGill University, reporting in the journal
Epidemiology, say they detected the virus in 64% of couples who reported
engaging in vaginal sex for a median of 3.9 months.
In 41% of 263 college couples studied, both partners had the same type of
HPV, a surprising finding “far more frequent than [the 11%] expected by chance”
even though the virus is the most common sexually transmitted infection, the
“[D]etection of the same type in persons initiating a sex relationship would
be rare given type-specific prevalence rates,” says the study, whose lead
author is Ann N. Burchell, PhD, of the division of cancer epidemiology,
departments of oncology and epidemiology and biostatistics at McGill University
Along with colleagues from the University of Montreal, Burchell and Eduardo
Franco, DrPH, MPH, director of McGill’s Cancer Epidemiology Unit, analyzed
self-reported data from partners of 263 couples.
The women, college students between 18 and 24, enrolled in the study with
their male partners. Women were sexually active with their male partners for no
more than six months. Most used condoms, but 9% never used condoms.
Self-collected vaginal swabs and clinician-collected swabs from the penis and
scrotum were tested for 36 strains of HPV.
Among 169 couples for whom at least one partner was infected, the scientists
identified 583 type-specific HPV infections. Twenty-five percent of monogamous
partners had the same virus type after engaging in vaginal sex for less than
two months, the authors write.
That rose to 68% among those who’d been having sex for five to six
“Due to its sexually transmitted nature, the study of HPV at the level of
sexual partnership is fundamental to our understanding of the epidemiology of
these infections,” the researchers write. “The observation that HPV occurs more
commonly in sexual partners than expected by chance provides evidence for the
sexual transmission of HPV.”
Transmission is likely early in sexual relationships, and having a new sex
partner is an important risk factor for infection in both women and men, the
HPV causes cervical cancer, as well as cancers of the vulva, vagina, anus,
penis, and head and neck. HPV also causes genital warts. Although HPV
infections are extremely common, with at least 50% of sexually active women and
men contracting this type of infection at some point, most have no symptoms and
clear the infection on their own, according to the CDC.
Another article from the researchers using data from the same group of
participants was published in the January 2010 issue of the journal Sexually
The second analysis found that the greatest risk factor for genital HPV
infection was infection in a person’s current sexual partner. Condoms were tied
to a more protective effect for men than for women.
“These results build on our knowledge that HPV infection is very
common among young adults, and underline the importance of prevention programs
for HPV-associated diseases,” Burchell says in the McGill news release. “Our
results also suggest that HPV is an easy virus to get and to transmit.”
Francois Coutlee, MD, a professor at the University of Montreal’s department
of microbiology and immunology and co-author on both articles, says the results
suggest that many HPV transmissions occur at the start of new relationships,
“which reinforces the need for prevention.”
SOURCES:News release, McGill University.Burchell, A. Epidemiology, January 2010; vol 21.Burchell, A. Sexually Transmitted Diseases, January 2010; vol 37.CDC web site: “Genital HPV Infection - CDC Fact Sheet.”
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