Women infected with a sexually transmitted infection that affects 80 percent of people at any point in their lives are five times more likely to suffer a stroke, a new study suggests.
Researchers in South Korea evaluated more than 163,000 young and middle-aged women with no history of heart disease.
The team tracked the participants, who were regularly screened for health conditions, for up to 17 years.
They found that women who had been infected with human papilloma virus (HPV), the most common sexually transmitted infection in females that is known to cause cervical cancer, were dramatically more likely to develop deadly heart disease.
Those who had the infection at some point were nearly four times more likely to have blocked artieries, 3.7 times more likely to die from heart disease, and almost six times more likely to suffer a stroke than women who had not contracted it.
The team called for more regular screenings and comprehensive care for women with HPV.
However, the virus can be difficult to spot as it comes and goes away on its own, and patients are only usually treated once there are signs it has triggered a cancer to develop.
Human papilloma virus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection in women, affecting up to 80 percent of people at some point in life
The scientists also suggested their findings pave the way for further investigation as to whether the HPV vaccine can lower deaths from heart disease, the leading cause of death in the US.
Researchers found that women who had been infected with HPV were nearly four times more likely to have blocked artieries and 3.7 times more likely to die from heart disease
‘This is the first study to show a link between high-risk HPV infection and deaths from cardiovascular disease,’ the researchers wrote.
Study author Dr Swungho Ryo of Sungkyunkwan University School of Medicine said: ‘If these findings are confirmed, they could have substantial implications for public health strategies.’
‘Increasing HPV vaccination rates may be an important strategy in reducing long-term cardiovascular risks.’
The researchers looked at 163,250 young and middle-aged women in South Korea. The average participant age was 40 years old, and the average body mass index (BMI) was 22, within a normal weight range.
None of the participants had any history of heart disease.
The women were screened for 13 strains of HPV and other chronic diseases, including cervical cancer, every year or two for an average of eight and a half years. However, some participants were evaluated for 17 years.
They were also given questionnaires on their medical history, medication use, smoking status, alcohol consumption, and amount of exercise.
The researchers compared the women’s health data and HPV test results to national data on deaths from heart disease and stroke.
They determined that the participants, who were all young, healthy women, had a 9.1 in 100,000 chance of dying from heart disease.
However, they found that women with HPV were at a 3.91 times greater risk of developing blocked arteries, 3.74 times more likely to die from heart disease, and 5.86 times more likely to die from a stroke compared to women who were not infected with HPV at any point.
They also found that the risk was greater in obese women who were infected with HPV.
The researchers found that the risk of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, which occurs when arteries are blocked, is greater for obese women who have been infected with HPV
However, the risk still rises for non-obese women
The team is largely unsure why HPV elevates these risks, though they theorized that it could be due to the infection leading to inflammation in blood vessels.
Dr Hae Suk Cheong, study author and professor in the Department of Social and Preventative Medicine at the Sungkyunkwan University School of Medicine, said: ‘We know that inflammation plays a pivotal role in the development and progression of cardiovascular disease and viral infections are potential triggers of inflammation.’
‘HPV is known for its link to cervical cancer, but research is starting to show that this virus can also be found in the blood stream.’
‘It could be that the virus is creating inflammation in the blood vessels, contributing to blocked and damaged arteries and increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease.’
The team said that the findings highlight a need for heart health monitoring in patients who have had HPV, as well as an increased need for HPV vaccinations.
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI), mostly affecting teens and young adults.
In nine out of 10 cases, it goes away without causing issues. However, it has been linked throat, anal, penile, vaginal, and vulvar cancers.
It’s also the most common risk factor for cervical cancer, the fourth most common form of cancer in women. However, cervical cancer cases are largely on the decline in the US.
Research published in 2023 by the American Cancer Society, for example, found that among women between ages 20 and 24, cervical cancer rates dropped by 33 percent from 2005 to 2012 and by 65 percent from 2012 to 2019.
HPV has been linked to more than 90 percent of cervical cancer rates. However, just 63 percent of US teens have been vaccinated against it
These women were also the first to receive the HPV vaccine when it was rolled out in 2006. The shot is given to girls and women between nine and 26 years old in the US.
Rebecca Siegel, lead study author and senior scientific director of surveillance research at the ACS, said: ‘The large drop in cervical cancer incidence is extremely exciting because this is the first group of women to receive the HPV vaccine, and it probably foreshadows steep reductions in other HPV-associated cancers.’
The authors of the ACS study said these findings show that HPV vaccination can ‘virtually eliminate cervical cancer,’ as it’s more than 90 percent effective.
However, vaccination rates are low.
Overall, 63 percent of US teens ages 13 to 17 are vaccinated against HPV.
The new study was published Tuesday in the European Heart Journal.