It seems like every day there's another article on HPV-most recently, we've learned that the Human Papillomavirus is linked to throat cancer, might cause heart disease, and that Michele Bachmann is an asshole (okay, and some good news, too: the CDC recently recommended that boys as well as girls be vaccinated against HPV).
But despite the STI's high profile, and the fact that 75% of sexually active women will contract HPV at some point in their lives, women have a hard time getting straight answers from medical professionals regarding the virus, which manifests in different forms and can be transient in nature.
One confusing issue is partner-sharing protocol: since HPV transfers so easily from person to person, and since most women contract it eventually, some doctors tell their patients that it's okay to keep their HPV history private. Which brings up a multitude of "Ifs:" Is it cool to keep your HPV diagnosis to yourself if your Pap smears have been clean for two years? What about two months? What if you don't have one of the strains that cause genital warts? And so on.
I consulted healthcare professionals, past and present HPV carriers, and the all-knowing internet in search of answers.
Few HPV-centric websites advise on how to talk about your diagnosis-I couldn't find anything on Planned Parenthood or the USA.Gov's HPV Site, two of the first websites that come up when you Google the STI-but most of those that do say it's your own, personal decision whether or not you talk to your sexual partner about HPV.
"It is impossible to know for certain from whom you got the HPV virus in the first place," claims the FAQ page on TheHPVTest.com. "You could have been exposed in another relationship months or years earlier, and the infection may have been dormant, or "silent," in the meantime. So, trying to determine who is at fault is not possible or productive."
"Chances are, by the time your infection was detected, your partner had already been exposed to HPV," says national non-profit Tamika & Friends. "Once you share a particular type of the virus through sexual contact, there is no further risk of passing the infection back and forth."
This advice is reassuring for those nervous about divulging-you practically get off scot-free!-but it didn't really answer my questions. Is it really okay not to tell your partner you have HPV just because tons of people have it?
Many women's health websites advertise the National STD and HPV hotlines (800-342-2437 and 877-HPV-5868, respectively), but when I tried repeatedly to call both lines, I was unable to connect or even stay on hold due to "high call volumes." But I was instantly connected to a Planned Parenthood adviser when I called their hotline (800-230-7526), who told me "not to worry about telling my partner if my HPV wasn't symptomatic."
"It's really a moral issue," the woman said. "So many people would have it if they were tested. If a woman isn't experiencing any symptoms, there's no need for her to divulge if she feels uncomfortable."
Dr. Grace Lau, an OBGYN at New York University's Medical Center, said she felt that it was a "personal decision" whether or not to tell your partner, depending on the terms of the relationship and the type of HPV, but that she recommends disclosure as a general rule.
"It's a tricky thing," said Dr. Lau, who admitted that there's "very little attention paid to the disclosure of HPV."
"It doesn't seem as necessary to disclose that you have HPV as it does Gonorrhea or Chlamydia," she told me, "but I think it's still important to give that information to a partner and have them decide what to do with it."
She said her opinion could differ depending on whether the HPV was the lower-risk, genital-wart-causing strain or Types 16 and 18, which can cause cancer. "If you can transmit warts to your partner, you should definitely tell him or her," she said. "But Types 16 and 18 are transient-they can resolve easily-so if the HPV goes away, it's no longer an issue for partners…we don't really know the answer to that yet."
I talked to some female friends of mine who have or have had HPV. Four of them who had irregular Pap Smears relating to the higher-risk strains in the past said they would not tell casual partners about their history with the virus. "I've had regular Paps for six months now, so my doctor told me it was okay to keep it private, as long as I use condoms," one said (note: condoms do not necessarily prevent against HPV). "If I get a serious boyfriend, I might tell him," said another. "But since I never had warts, I don't really feel like it's his business."
Most of the male friends I asked said they'd want any serious partners-people they might potentially have unprotected sex with-to tell them if they had a history with HPV. "I'd want to know about it, just like I would any other health complication or STI," one friend said. Even if they had it years ago, I asked? He wasn't sure. "My medical expertise doesn't extend that far", he said.
Another male friend said that when a partner told him she had HPV, he was "more surprised that she told him than that she had it." "Since so many people have it, I didn't really think twice about it," he told me.
In conclusion, it seems like most people-including medical professionals-shy away from thinking hard about partner-sharing protocol. As Jen Doll wrote in the Village Voice recently, "Perhaps the greatest danger in the battle against HPV is one of PR. People are ashamed (after all, it's an STD), and women in particular are shamed. No one wants to admit it, no one talks about it, and when people do, it's in whispers and there's a lot of misinformation…But what if you knew that almost everyone you knew had at one point had (or currently has) HPV? Would you feel less ashamed? If all of us have had it, and all of us admit it, doesn't it take the shame… out of it?"
I think she's right. Instead of struggling to determine a strict litmus test for discussing one's history with HPV, we should destigmatize the virus so that it's not longer that big a deal to say you've had it.
Doll declared September 16, "Tweet that You Have (or Had) HPV Day." Maybe you're not ready to share your STI with your Twitter followers-but next time a friend confides that she's had HPV, or your partner brings up the topic, consider broaching the issue.