HPV - not just a women's disease

By Sarah RaparoliLex KlerenMisch Pautsch Switch to German for original article

An infection with human papillomaviruses (HPV) usually remains unnoticed and symptom-free. At the same time, one of the doctors interviewed by the Lëtzebuerger Journal says: "Without HPV, there is basically no cervical cancer." This is about how important regular testing and vaccination is and why boys and men can be equally affected by infection.

"HPV is actually a relatively new virus. New in the sense that the virus was only discovered and detected 40 years ago", explains Dr Pit Duschinger. He has practised as a gynaecologist since 1988, has worked in Luxembourg since 1991 and has held the presidency of the Société Luxembourgeoise de Gynécologie et d'Obstétrique (SLGO) since 2018. "However, HPV has been around for a very long time. We strongly believe that we have been living with the virus for 1,000 years. When a medical scientist from Germany identified the virus and was able to prove that it was responsible for cervical cancer in women, it was a major breakthrough. He was honoured with the Nobel Prize for it."

So far, so good, but what is this HPV actually? Women in particular will be familiar with the virus – because they regularly go to the gynaecologist. Human papillomaviruses are among the most common infections of the skin and mucous membranes worldwide that are transmitted through intimate contact. According to estimates, a good 80 per cent of the sexually active population is infected with genital HPV, and half of the infections occur between the ages of 15 and 24.

Over 200 different types known

"In the vast majority of people, the virus doesn't cause any problems", Dr Duschinger continues. "It sits in the cells and leaves us alone." An infection often goes unnoticed at first. "It can run symptom-free and in most cases heal itself within up to two years due to a good immune defence." So those affected usually don't know that they have or have already had the virus. In total, there are more than 200 known HPV types, not all of which, as the doctor repeatedly points out, lead to cervical cancer or other cancers. "This is very important that those affected are told the facts", says the gynaecologist and goes on to explain: "HPV is not systematically checked, precisely to prevent people from panicking, because in up to 98 percent of cases nothing happens."

That is why he says he is also careful not to spread panic in his own practice. "I take a lot of time. If we find an irregularity during the smear test, our patients first receive a letter in which we inform them that the findings are benign. Then we offer them a clarifying conversation." He then calls them one or two days later. "These are conversations of ten to twelve minutes in which the situation is explained to them to reassure them." In such cases, he says, personal contact is particularly important. "If your doctor can't reassure you, who else can?"

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