HPV positive or HPV+?
HPV stands for Human Papilloma Virus. The Papilloma viruses are a family of viruses that have a common tropism (a specificity to infect): the skin and the mucous membranes.
More than a hundred of such viruses have been identified, around 40 of which can infect the genitals:
- some of these we call ‘well-behaved’ or Low Risk HPV (for example HPV 6 & 11)
- others are ‘badly behaved’ or High Risk HPV or potentially cancer causing
Among them some are more carcinogenic than others: they are called High risk viruses (for example, HPV 16 & 18).
They are responsible for the occurrence of genital cancers, the most common of which is cervical cancer.
However most of the time (in 80 to 90% of cases) the infection is usually transient and disappears spontaneously, and is the natural and most frequent evolution of a Papilloma virus infection.
Nevertheless, if the virus persists, it may lead to the development of precancerous lesions. If in turn these lesions remain, they can develop into cancer after a relatively long period of about 10 to 15 years.
Many DNA tests have been developed in order to determine if one is a carrier of HPV. Growing HPV in a culture is not possible because it is not a bacterial infection.
Several tests are available commercially. Most often one finds HPV as part of a “cocktail” of high risk virus tests.
A positive result indicates the person is a carrier of the virus. This does not necessarily indicate that the carrier also has a precancerous lesion.
A positive test result does not in itself carry any negative connotation. It is only if the virus is persistent that there is a risk to manage.
Negative results suggest the probability of developing lesions in the following 3 - 5 years is very slight.
More recently, even more precise tests have been developed (Genotyping). They identify the precise genotype of the virus especially since some genotypes are more dangerous than others, examples of which are HPV 16 & 18.
These tests may be the future for improved monitoring of patients particularly those who have been vaccinated against certain strains of HPV.