HPV stigma and misunderstanding really concerning, say campaigners

Doctor giving patient vaccine, flu or influenza shot or taking blood test with needle. Nurse with injection or syringe.
Doctor giving patient vaccine, flu or influenza shot or taking blood test with needle. Nurse with injection or syringe.

A "really concerning" level of stigma and misunderstanding about the human papilloma virus could be putting women off going for vital smear tests, campaigners have warned.

A survey of more than 2,000 women by Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust suggested incorrect knowledge about the virus, known as HPV, is commonplace.

Meanwhile there are a wide range of stigmas associated with HPV that lead to high levels of misplaced "fear or shame", according to the responses.

HPV is a common infection spread through close skin-to-skin contact, usually during sex or oral sex.

Eight in 10 women will have some form of HPV infection in their lifetime, but only very few who have specific high-risk types of the virus will go on to develop cancer.

At present, around 2,500 women in England are told they have cervical cancer each year.

Sara Hiom, Cancer Research UK's director of early diagnosis, said "busting the myths and removing the stigmas" surrounding HPV is "vital" to ensure people feel more confident about going for screening.

"It is really concerning that there's so much misunderstanding about HPV," she said.

"It's a very common virus and most of the time, it will sit dormant and not cause a problem.

"Testing for the virus is a better way to identify people who may have changes in their cervix, which, if left untreated, could develop into cervical cancer.

"So HPV screening is an excellent way to prevent cervical cancer from developing in the first place."

Only 15% of the women who took part in the survey realised HPV was commonplace.

A third of the women did not know HPV can cause cervical cancer, while almost all did not know it can cause throat or mouth cancer.

The research also suggested social stigmas and myths surrounding HPV could make women anxious, including raising fears about their partner's fidelity and putting them off going for cervical screening.

Almost 40% said they would be worried about what people thought of them if told they had HPV and more than 40% would worry their partner had been unfaithful.

Some 70% said they would be scared to hear they had HPV and two-thirds said they would worry it meant they had cancer.

The research was presented at Cancer Research UK's Early Diagnosis Conference in Birmingham.

Robert Music, chief executive of Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust, said: "We must address the level of misunderstanding that exists around HPV.

"Most people will get the virus in their lifetime so it is worrying to see such high levels of fear or shame associated with it.

"With the screening programme moving to testing for HPV first, which is to be celebrated, we must normalise the virus to ensure people fully understand what it means to have it."

A new cervical cancer screening regime is being rolled out across the NHS with hopes it will cut the number of women diagnosed each year by a fifth.

The new way of testing, which looks for HPV first, was found to be much more accurate than current smear tests in picking up abnormal changes to cells that could lead to cervical cancer.

Furthermore, it means that women who are known to be low risk could safely have cervical screening every five years rather than the current three.