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UTHealth researchers find HPV transmitted more often from women to men

HOUSTON – (Dec. 9, 2013) –A commonly held belief is that men are responsible for spreading the human papillomavirus (HPV) to women, but new research from The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) suggests it’s women who transmit the virus more often to men.

The research was published online on the Journal of Infectious Diseases’ website in November, and is slated for publication in the print edition.

Alan Nyitray, Ph.D., assistant professor for the Center for Infectious Diseases at UTHealth’s School of Public Health, led the research. An ancillary study to the HPV in Men (HIM) study, designed by principal investigator Anna Giuliano, Ph.D., of the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa followed 99 couples between the ages of 18 and 70 for two years, and tested them regularly for HPV to determine how often each partner became infected with HPV.

Of these 99 couples, Nyitray then analyzed a subset of 65 couples to learn how often partners transmitted specific HPV types to each other. He also evaluated the effect of monogamy and relationship duration on the transmission of HPV.

After 12 months, 18 percent of the infections that the women harbored were transmitted to their male partners, while only 7 percent of the infections that men harbored were transmitted to their female partners. Within the couples, men were infected with HPV more often than the women were, regardless of their monogamy status or whether they were in relationships of shorter or longer duration.

The results were surprising, Nyitray said, because the largest previous study found that HPV transmission from men to women and from women to men was about equal.

“In our article, the ages of the men and women ranged from18 to 70 years and most couples had been together for years, not just months,” Nyitray said, adding that the previous study on HPV transmission had enrolled college-aged men and women who had started their sexual relationships within the last six months. “It may be that in the older couples, women may have more immune protection than the men. That may be one reason our results differ from the study of younger heterosexual couples.” 

Approximately 79 million Americans are currently infected with HPV, according to the Centers for Disease Control and about 14 million people become newly infected each year. The virus is spread by sexual contact. For most people infected with HPV, the virus goes away, leaving no health problems. However, some types of HPV can cause anal or genital warts, and other types can cause precancerous lesions, which can develop into cervical cancer in women and cancers of the penis and anus in men. The virus also can cause cancer of the oropharynx (back of the throat, including base of the tongue and tonsils.)

Nyitray said the results suggest a need for preventive interventions, like vaccination, for men.

“There is often still a misconception in people’s minds that men are the carriers of HPV while it’s the women who get cervical cancer,” Nyitray said. “Cervical cancer is still the most important health problem caused by HPV with over a quarter of a million women on the globe dying from it each year. But we also know now that there is a large burden of disease among men that is caused by HPV. So it’s my hope that this study helps us become more appreciative of the complexity of HPV transmission.”

Co-authors on the study were Mihyun Chang, M.P.H. of the UT School of Public Health, Hui-Yi Lin, Ph.D., Anna R. Giuliano, Ph.D., William J. Fulp, M.S., Beibei Lu, Ph.D., Martha Abrahamsen, M.P.H., Mary Papenfuss, M.S., and Christine Gage, A.R.N.P. of the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute, Lynette Menezes, Ph.D. of the University of South Florida College of Medicine and Claudia M. Galindo of GlaxoSmithKline.

Disclosures: Nyitray has previously received research support from Merck & Co., Inc. Galindo is an employee of GlaxoSmithKline. Giuliano receives research support from GlaxoSmithKline and Merck & Co., Inc., and is on the Speaker's Bureau of Merck & Co., Inc. Financial support was provided by the National Institutes of Health (grant RO1 CA098803 01–A1 to A.R.G.) and GlaxoSmithKline (grant EPI-HPV-036 BOD US CRT to A.R.G.). Nyitray’s contribution to this paper was also funded by a grant from the National Cancer Institute (grant R25 CA090314 to Paul B. Jacobsen, Ph.D., Principal Investigator).

- Written by Anissa Orr, UT School of Public Health Communications

Hannah Rhodes
Media Contact: 713-500-3030