Condoms Give Some Protection Against HPV

Earlier this year, conservatives in Congress pushed for legislation to put a warning label on condoms because there was no scientific evidence showing that condoms protect against HPV, the virus that causes genital warts and cervical cancer. Now, a new study shows that condoms do provide some — but not complete — protection against HPV.

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The more a woman's partner uses a condom, the less likely she is to become infected with HPV, a sexually transmitted disease that causes genital warts and cervical cancer. That is according to a study in this week's New England Journal of Medicine. This is important new evidence for the Food and Drug Administration to consider as it decides what information to put on condom labels.

NPR's Brenda Wilson reports.

BRENDA WILSON reporting:

The researchers chose a very select group for this study, young coeds who'd never had sex, because they wanted woman who hadn't been exposed to HPV before. Rachel Winer of the University of Seattle, Washington, says they kept a bi-weekly computer diary of their sexual activity.

Dr. RACHEL WINER (University of Seattle Washington): Having them fill out detailed information about their condom use on the computer, which is probably a more anonymous method than a face to face interview. It might have enhanced their willingness to respond truthfully to these kinds of questions.

WILSON: Such as how often they had had sex in the previous weeks, whether their partner used a condom, how often he used a condom, whether he had previous partners. The study hoped to determine the effect of using condoms on the risk of becoming infected with HPV, which the CDC estimates 80 percent of Americans can expect to have by the time they're 50.

Dr. WINER: It leads me to suggest that woman can reduce their risk of infection by using condoms consistently with their male partners.

WILSON: By about 70 percent, she says. This is consistent with current language on condom labels, that condoms reduce the risk of HIV and AIDS and many other sexual transmitted diseases. But, the FDA is now considering a policy that would require labels to specify by how much condoms reduce the risk of these infections.

In the case of HPV, Winer says, the nature of the disease has made it difficult to determine how much protection condoms provide. Since it is more easily acquired than other sexually transmitted infections.

Dr. WINER: Given that it is transmitted through skin to skin contact, it's reasonable that it can be transmitted through areas of skin that aren't protected by a condom. Or, if a condom had broken or slippage, I mean we obviously don't know in a particular instance whether the condom was used correctly and whether that particular condom could have been faulty or anything like that.

WILSON: And that kind of information should be reflected on the condom packet according to Linda Klepacki of the conservative advocacy group Focus on the Family.

Ms. LINDA KLEPACKI: (Focus on the Family): What we want is consumers to know the amount of risk that they're taking. If they're using condoms as their sole means of risk reduction, they need to know how much these condoms are going to reduce the risk. And of course, they have to use these condoms effectively and they have to use them every time they have sex.

WILSON: All of that information on that little packet?

Ms. KLEPACKI: Yes, we need teenagers, we need young adults especially, because they have the highest risk for sexually transmitted infection, to know what risk factors they are taking by relying on condoms.

WILSON: And Klepacki says if young people know that there are risks even with condoms, they'll know that the only way to eliminate the risk is by not having sex until they are married.

Brenda Wilson, NPR News, Washington.

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