For many reasons, transgender women as a group are at high risk for sexually transmitted infections (STIs). The types of STIs a trans woman is at risk for changes after vaginoplasty but doesn’t go away. Reports of (neo) vaginal infection by gonorrhea and chlamydia are rare, for example. Trans women with (neo) vaginas may be at higher risk for HIV because of the greater possibility of a vaginal tear. Relatively little is known about the risk for other STIs, such as the human papilloma virus (HPV). Today I take a look at a new paper on HPV infection in post-vaginoplasty trans women.
HPV, the Human Papilloma Virus
HPV is a virus spread by skin-to-skin contact. There are different types of the virus. Some types cause warts (NSFW link). All warts are caused by a version of HPV. Warts that are on the genitals or anus are caused by specific types of HPV that are considered sexually-transmitted infections (types 6 and 11). The warts can be uncomfortable or painful. They can be very small or grow to become large masses. Warts themselves are fairly harmless otherwise.
The types of HPV that don’t cause warts are more dangerous. Those include types 16, 18, 31, and 33. These types don’t cause warts, but they cause changes that can lead to cancer. Cancers that have been associated with infection include cervical cancer, vaginal cancer, anal cancer, penile cancer, and some throat/oropharyngeal cancers. As you can tell from where these cancers happen, these types of HPV are often sexually transmitted. Screening tests for associated cancers include cervical pap smear, anal pap smear, and testing for the virus.
HPV can be prevented by vaccine and by barriers such as condoms and dental dams. Most vaccines prevent both the cancer-causing and genital wart-causing types. There is no cure for infection. Treatment is limited to removal of warts and treatment for cancers.
What about HPV infection in post-vaginoplasty trans women? Since HPV is a skin-to-skin contact infection, the (neo) vagina can still be infected by HPV. What has been reported in the medical literature about HPV infection? This paper presented 4 cases of vaginal HPV in their clinic and summarized 9 reports that had previously been reported in the medical literature. So they discussed 13 reports of HPV total.
They only reported symptomatic HPV cases. So only women who were having pain, discomfort, or other symptoms from an infection were discussed.
Most of the women had had a penile inversion vaginoplasty. One woman had a sigmoid vaginoplasty, one had a “split skin graft” (NSFW) vaginoplasty, and one was unknown. Split skin graft is a technique that uses skin from elsewhere on the body, and is sometimes used for cis women who were born without a vagina.
Of the four new cases discussed in the article, all came to the clinic with pain, either vaginal or vulvar. Three of the four women had genital warts, which were removed. The fourth had a white discoloration (“leukoplakia”), also caused by human papilloma virus. The pain and symptoms of all four were resolved with treatment and the lesions did not come back. All four were HIV negative and had previously had penis-in-vagina sex with at least one cis man.
There was less reported about the 9 cases that had previously been reported in the medical literature. 7 out of the 9 had genital warts. 6 of those 7 had the warts successfully removed. The 7th had to have a vaginectomy to remove the warts. Of the two who did not have warts, one had vaginal cancer and had to have a vaginectomy and chemo. The last had a pre-cancerous lesion, and we don’t know what happened to her.
The types of treatment for warts varied. Some were removed successfully with medication. Others were removed surgically. Still others were removed with laser or electricity.
Ultimately — all these results sound like what happens with cis women. Warts happen, cause pain or distress, and are treated. Less commonly, HPV causes cancer or pre-cancerous lesions and that is treated.
What this article brings to attention is that trans women need HPV prevention as much as everyone else. HPV vaccination for people up to age 26 is recommended. For those older than 26, barriers during sex with partners is a useful tool.
UCSF recommends “periodic” visual examination of the (neo) vagina to look for changes that may be pre-cancerous lesions. But they don’t define what “periodic” means. Cis women get pap smears every 3-5 years; 3-5 years may be a reasonable range for trans women too, but we just don’t know for sure. So if you’re concerned, talk with your physician about screening.
Want to know more about HPV? The CDC has good information.
Want to read the study for yourself? The abstract is publicly available.