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Confusing meme gets facts – and photo – of human papillomavirus wrong

Is the human papillomavirus a “new virus discovered in Africa” that is “worse than HIV”? These are some of the claims in a meme published on Facebook in South Africa in May 2019 and shared almost 300 times.

It shows a close-up of a human torso covered in what appear to be warts or lesions.

The text reads: “The picture you see is a new virus discovered in Africa called Human Papilloma Virus (HIP) which is worse than HIV. One could be affected with it through sex even with the use of condom because condoms can do 60% in terms of protection.

Photo shows symptoms of smallpox

The human papillomavirus is a group of viruses that are extremely common worldwide. They are not new, and were not discovered in Africa. Scientists first came across HPV in 1956, in the US.

And the photo in the meme is of smallpox, not HPV. A reverse image search reveals that it shows smallpox lesions during the eruptive phase of the disease, on the torso of a patient in Bangladesh in 1973. It was taken by James Hicks of the US Centers for Disease Control.

Smallpox was a serious infectious disease caused by the variola virus. Successful vaccination campaigns have eradicated the disease, and there have been no outbreaks since 1977. Its symptoms included a skin rash – lesions as shown in the photo – and about three in 10 people with the disease died.  

HPV causes cancer – and condoms lower risk

But HPV has not been eradicated, and is dangerous because it can cause cancer – particularly cervical cancer in women.

At least 14 of the viruses in the HPV group cause cancer. Two of them cause about 70% of cervical cancers. HPV has also been linked to cancers of the anus, vulva, vagina, penis and oropharynx.

HPV is mainly transmitted by sex.

Condom use significantly reduces women’s risk of getting HPV. One study found that “women whose partners used them at least half the time had a 50% lower risk of infection and women whose partners used them every time had a 70% lower risk”.

The US Centers for Disease Control says correct use of a latex condom reduces the risk of contracting genital HPV infections and HPV-associated diseases, such as cancer.

There’s also a vaccine for HPV, which can be given to children as early as age 9. Teenagers and young adults can be vaccinated too. The vaccine is very safe, the CDC says.

HPV more dangerous than HIV?

Prof Oyewale Tomori, a professor of virology at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, said skin lesions were not a symptom of HPV.

“Common symptoms of HPV include warts. The appearance of warts is different from lesions triggered by smallpox,” he told Africa Check.

But is HPV worse than HIV? Tomori said that was a question that could not be answered.

“First, HPV and HIV can kill, so it would be hard to say one is worse than the other. Secondly, it is only a person who has had both ailments that can say one is worse than the other.  Furthermore, HPV has its vaccine which means few people die from the virus, unlike HIV which has no vaccine. But we can’t say because of that, HIV is worse than HPV.”  

According to the World Health Organization, 940,000 people died of HIV-related illnesses worldwide in 2017. In 2018, some 311,000 women died from cervical cancer. More than 85% of those deaths were in low- and middle-income countries. – Africa Check

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