1. HPV (human papilloma virus) is contracted by more than 75% of sexually active women and men at some stage during their life.
2. Most people never experience any symptoms, but as carriers, they unknowingly pass the virus on to their unsuspecting sexual partners.
3. Often, women only find out that they have been infected when the virus is picked up during cervical screening. In the UK screening is offered to all women between the ages of 25 and 64 every three to five years, because high-risk strains of HPV (such as HPV 16 and 18) are implicated in about 70% of cervical cancers.
4. For women who are in monogamous relationships, an STI diagnosis can raise obvious concerns about infidelity, particularly for older women who may be starting to date again after years in a marriage or a long term commitment.
5. However, because so many people unknowingly carry the HPV virus, a positive smear is not necessarily a reliable indication that a partner has been unfaithful.
6. Firstly, HPV is actually an umbrella term which describes a group of about one hundred different viruses that can cause cellular changes such as warts on the skin and the moist membranes in the cervix, anus, mouth and throat. About 60 strains of HPV cause common skin warts and verrucas on the hands or feet and the other 40 strains are sexually transmitted.
7. Low-risk genital strains, such as HPV 6 and 11 can cause genital warts which can show up weeks, or months after exposure to an infected sexual partner. If no warts ever become visible no treatment is needed, but if bumps or cauliflower shaped growths appear, they need to be treated with topical ointments or ablation by heating, freezing or removing the warts.
8. In the past it was thought that the immune system naturally cleared the HPV infection from the body within two years, but research carried out by Patti Gravitt at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health now suggests that the virus is controlled, rather than cleared, and that it can reactivate in women when they are in their late forties and early fifties.
9. Gravitt, who developed the gold standard method for detecting and genotyping HPV, found that latent, but undetectable, HPV was reactivated in menopausal women who had been monogamous, or sexually abstinent, for decades.
10. When Gravitt examined newly detected HPV in her cohort of menopausal women, she found that only 13 percent of infection was attributed to new sex partners, whereas 72 percent was attributed to having a higher number of lifetime partners. Gravitt concluded that these were not new infections, but a reactivation of pre-existing HPV and she suggests that menopause and ageing might make women immunologically vulnerable. Although there is a positive correlation between HPV and higher numbers of sexual partners, Gravitt's research confirms that a diagnosis of HPV infection in mid life is not necessarily a related to infidelity or prior infection in a new sexual partner. You can read Gravitt's paper here: A Cohort Effect of the Sexual Revolution May Be Masking an Increase in Human Papillomavirus Detection at Menopause in the United States