It’s become common practice among some OB-GYNs to test for HPV, the human papilloma virus, due to the association of some strains of this sexually transmitted infection (STI) with cervical cancer.
But testing of women under the age of 30 is inadvisable. Because, although at least half of all sexually active men and women will get genital HPV at some point in their lives, the immune system will fight off and remove most of these infections from the body with no treatment. Seventy percent are gone within a year and 90 percent within two years.
It’s that 10 percent of cases we have to watch for. Some of those will lead to precancerous lesions in the cervix which, if left untreated, can develop into cervical cancer. But this process takes from 15 to 20 years. So, testing women under 30 for HPV leads to false positives, more testing, and perhaps invasive procedures in women who are at little or no risk of developing cervical cancer from HPV.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) therefore recommends that women under 30 not be tested for this STI, and I agree. If a woman under 30 has one of the high risk types of HPV, and if it persists, there will be ample time to find it and treat it. If she has one of the lower risk strains, it will probably be gone with no intervention within a year or two.
- Yvonne S. Thornton, MD, MPH