Both HIV/AIDS and HPV are viruses. Just as with HPV (Human Papillomavirus) which has been in existence for centuries, HIV/AIDS (Human Immunodeficiency Virus/ Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) has also existed as an unidentified condition decades before its identity as a retrovirus was discovered in the early 1980s. This is the same time frame during which HPV was identified as being responsible for cervical cancer. Actually the retroviruses responsible for AIDS were discovered in the very same year, 1984, as was the connection between HPV and cervical cancer.
According to information from those who researched AIDS in the earliest years, it could take ten years or more for the onset of symptoms. Similarly, while the incubation period for HPV is usually three months, symptoms are usually absent and actual progression to an invasive cancer takes a similar amount of time, approximately ten years.
Dr. Robert Yarchoan of the National Institute of Health, made the following comment regarding the early days of AIDS diagnoses. “I remember doing a rough mental calculation of the number of gays in the country and the percentage who were likely to be HIV-infected, and estimating that there were half a million to a million people infected with this lethal virus who did not know it.” With HPV estimated to affect over twenty million Americans and more than six million more acquiring the virus each year, still few people are even aware of what HPV stands for.
By the mid-eighties however, far more extensive research was being conducted with respect to pharmaceuticals and vaccines and more so after the United States Congress allocated additional funding in 1986. Within ten years of the identification of the AIDS virus there existed medications which could control the disease. Conversely, it took another two decades for the first vaccine to become available for HPV in 2006. Even this vaccine is limited and does not cover all cancer-causing strains of HPV.
While the Pap smear and subsequent HPV test has resulted in a dramatic reduction in the number of cervical cancers, this is the result of early identification. The treatment for cervical cancer is typically some form of invasive tissue removing procedure. If a medication were developed it would be far less traumatic and result in fewer consequences (physical and psychological) for women, including potential infertility.
So why is AIDS so familiar to the majority while HPV remains relatively unknown? It would appear that the government's direct involvement as well as its massive funding for AIDS research may be the answer. The media also played more of a role in educating the public than they do today with HPV. Yet, high risk HPV has now been identified as being necessary for the progression to a minimum of five different cancers: cervical, vaginal, vulvar, anal and oral, with other conditions resulting from low risk strains.
While HPV may not be fatal within a short period of time as AIDS was, it is ultimately still responsible for millions of deaths throughout the world each year. The question remains, just how many cancers will need to be attributed to HPV before the government decides to involve itself both in education and funding? Despite all the similarities, the difference in how each has played out since discovery appear quite disturbing.
Reviewed August 4, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg R.N.
Edited by Jody Smith