June 21, 2006 — -- College junior Kelsey Innis knows the facts about sexually transmitted diseases but finds that many students don't.
"There's an attitude of real fear out there that doesn't breed knowledge," said Innis, who is also a sexual health peer educator at the University of Texas in Austin.
Slowing the spread of one of the nation's most prevalent STDs among college students -- the human papilloma virus, or HPV -- requires knowing how the virus is prevented. That has been somewhat of a mystery -- until now.
A new study in the New England Journal of Medicine reveals that consistent condom use can prevent the spread of HPV in up to 70 percent of cases, giving Innis and other health educators better proof that condoms can prevent HPV, helping to dispel any myths that they are not effective.
"It's the first study to nail home the point that condoms prevent against HPV transmission," said Peter A. Leone, an epidemiology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The study, conducted at the University of Washington, tracked the sexual activity of 82 female students between the ages of 18 to 22. Women whose partners used condoms 100 percent of the time were 70 percent less likely to be infected by HPV compared with those that used them 5 percent of the time.
Even using condoms over half of the time decreased their risk by 50 percent, researchers said.
Doctors and educators recommend condoms to prevent HPV transmission even though previous studies have not shown exactly how effective they really are.
This study was different because it started with young women who had not been sexually active and followed them over a period of time, according to the study's author, Rachel Winer, a researcher at the University of Washington.
Also, the women submitted diaries documenting their daily sexual activity and condom use online that provided more accurate, and perhaps truthful, information.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 6.2 million Americans are infected with HPV each year. There are more than 100 subtypes of HPV, about 30 of which infect the genital tract. The virus spreads through contact, infecting skin cells.
Some strains have no symptoms, while others show up as genital warts or cause cellular changes on the cervix, sometimes leading to cervical cancer.
Even with the recent Food and Drug Administration's approval of a new HPV vaccine, Gardasil, physicians continue to stress prevention. The vaccine only protects against four subtypes of HPV, which cause about 70 percent of cervical cancers.
"In order to attack HPV as a serious cause of cervical cancer, we need a twofold approach," said Willard Cates, president of the Institute for Family Health, a non-profit organization focused on preventing HIV in developing countries. "Condom use would complement the vaccine strategy as well."
Until now condom makers and educators could only say that condoms might prevent HPV, but not to what extent. This has fueled the argument among more right-leaning groups that condoms are not reliable. Having specific numbers may influence public awareness on condom use.
"The biggest impact of the study is that health educators are going to be able to give numbers," said Daven Wedel, president of Global Protection Corp., a maker of the Pleasure Plus condom. "It balances some of the other misinformation."
According to Wedel, as condom use became political, some groups and politicians distorted the message saying that condoms were not effective against STDs.
Having solid numbers also can help make a sexual health peer educator's job easier.
"College students always want proof. If they have numbers, they'll start to believe it more," said Stella Chang, a senior at the University of Maryland.
For many doctors, however, it won't change the message they give to their patients on condom use and HPV.
The message is still the same: Condoms can prevent HPV transmission -- but not all of the time. That's because HPV can reside in cells not covered by the condom.
Study results also will not likely change condom labeling. Currently the label states that condoms can reduce the risk of HIV and many other sexually transmitted diseases. In 2005 the FDA proposed that the labels include other STDs that condoms may protect against, including HPV.
David Mayer, president of Mayer Labs, the maker of the Kimono condom, felt that this might confuse the consumer and dilute the message.
Condom makers, however, recognize the role studies like these have in educating the public.
"We believe that individuals who choose to be sexually active need to be reminded that consistent and correct condom use protects against STDs," said Jim Daniels, vice president of Marketing of Trojan Brand Condoms. "We applaud this study."