Every Saturday the CSPH highlights news or recent research in the field of human sexuality. This week we’re discussing research conducted at the University of South Carolina, which found that instances of human papillomavirus infection (HPV) lasted longer in African-American women than in Caucasian women. This points to a possible higher risk of cervical cancer and other HPV-related health issues in African-American women if an HPV infection is left untreated.
Kim Creek, vice-chair and professor of pharmaceutical and biomedical sciences at the South Carolina College of Pharmacy in Charleston, and his colleagues assessed HPV infection and persistence in college-age women enrolled at the University of South Carolina. The study began in 2004, and the women were followed throughout their college years. HPV status was evaluated every six months in Pap test samples from 326 Caucasian women and 113 African-American women. While the rate of new high-risk (meaning it had the potential to lead to cervical cancer) HPV infection was similar between the two groups of women, the researchers found at any given visit, African-American women were 1.5 times more likely to test positive for high-risk HPV infection. Additionally, they found that 56% of the infected African-American women were still infected two years after they were first diagnosed, compared with 24% of the infected Caucasian women.
Creek stated that it is known African-American women are 40% more likely to develop cervical cancer and two times more likely to die from the disease than European or American white women, but this discrepancy has typically been attributed to lack of access to medical care. The results of this study, according to the researchers, suggest a possible biological basis for the varying rates. Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is a sexually transmitted infection that can cause genital warts and is responsible for many cases of cervical cancer, but most HPV infections are transient. “If you are infected, your body recognizes it as a viral infection and usually clears the virus within one or two years,” Creek said. “It is those women who have difficulty clearing it that are at higher risk of cervical disease and cervical cancer.”
The study does not give an explanation for why black women may have more difficulty clearing the virus. “We think that it likely has something to do with the immune system,” Creek said. Lifestyle factors and genetic differences may also play a role, the researchers said, but it is way too early to draw any conclusions about screening and treatment of HPV in black women from this study. This data is preliminary and has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed medical journal. Regular screening with the Pap test to detect the presence of any abnormal or precancerous cells is the best way to prevent cervical cancer. If these types of cells are detected, measures can be taken to prevent them from developing into cancer. HPV vaccinations can also offer protection from the four types of HPV that cause most cervical cancers.