, Volume 50, Issue 3, pp 167-173

Sun exposure, sexual behavior and uterine cervical human papilloma virus

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Abstract

Introduction

We have previously observed marked seasonal fluctuations in the frequency of cervical smears positive for human papilloma virus (HPV) in a series of smears obtained in Holland, with a peak in the summer months, especially August. Here, we tested two possible mechanisms that might underlie this summer peak: (1) enhanced transmission of HPV due to increased seasonal sexual activity, or (2) suppression of immunity due to summertime population exposure to solar ultraviolet (UV) radiation.

Methods

Data derived from a continuous series of >900,000 independent cervical smears obtained from 1983 to 1998 were assessed for histopathologic epithelial changes pathognomonic of HPV. The rate of HPV positivity was then compared to both the rate of sexual activity (using conception frequency as a readily available surrogate) as well as yearly and monthly fluctuations in solar-UV fluency.

Results

The rate of HPV positivity was found to be twice as high during the summer months, with a peak in August corresponding with maximal UV fluency. Furthermore, over these 16 consecutive years of continuous observation, maximum HPV detection rate and maximum UV fluency are positively correlated (r=0.59, P<0.01); the sunnier the year, the greater the rate of HPV. Likewise, there is a positive correlation of the monthly UV fluency, and monthly HPV discovery rate (r=0.16, P<0.03). In contrast, conception frequency (and, presumably, population sexual HPV transmission) was maximal near the vernal equinox, with relatively modest (<10%) seasonal fluctuation, i.e., not fully explaining this prominent August peak in HPV discovery.

Conlusions

There is a clear relationship between the detection of HPV-positive cervical smears and sunlight exposure. We speculate that the well-known phenomenon of UV-mediated suppression of immune surveillance may be causally related to this unusual increase in cytologically defined active HPV infections during the summer months in northern countries such as Holland. Confirming this relationship elsewhere may be important, because whatever the risk conferred by sunlight is, in principle, behaviorally avoidable.