Concern over ‘dangerous’ HPV myths

Survey highlights lack of knowledge and stigma around cancer-causing infection ahead of new test in cervical screening programme

Friday 30th August 2019

Nearly half of Scottish women incorrectly believe they are not at risk of infection by the HPV virus if they are in a long-term stable relationship, a survey has found.

More than a third – 37% – also wrongly think they do not need to go for a cervical screening test if they have been vaccinated against the virus, according to the YouGov poll.

Experts warn the research shows a “worrying” lack of understanding about the HPV virus, which is the cause of nearly all cervical cancers.

The survey also revealed unfair stigma attached to HPV, with more than a quarter of women in Scotland saying they would feel embarrassed if they were diagnosed with it.

Yet it is almost as common as the cold virus, with around 90% of people coming into contact with some form of HPV during their lifetime.

Being in a long-term relationship does not remove the risk, as the virus can lie dormant in the system for many years.

However 13% of women in the survey believed sexual promiscuity is the main risk factor for cervical cancer.

The incidence of cervical cancer has increased by nearly a fifth in Scotland over the last 10 years.

From early 2020, testing for the HPV virus will be included as a test in Scotland’s cervical screening programme to identify women at higher risk of developing cancer.

It will be carried out using the same sample of cells taken during a smear test, so the process will not change for women taking part.

Robert Music, chief executive of Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, said this will lead to more women being diagnosed with the virus.

He said: “It is worrying to see so many myths and so much stigma regarding HPV as this may just increase fear and uncertainty at an already anxious time.

“Increasing understanding about HPV, including what having the virus means, how it is contracted and how long it stays in the body, is essential.

“The role of health professionals is crucial, however education should start in school when the HPV vaccination is offered providing an opportunity to normalise the virus from an early age.”

The YouGov survey of nearly 1,500 women across the UK, including 123 in Scotland, was commissioned by Roche Diagnostics.

Vicki Bokor Ingram, cervical cancer lead at Roche Diagnostics UK & Ireland, said: “The results of this survey are shocking and show why we need to come together with other healthcare professionals to help tackle some of these dangerous HPV myths, reduce the stigma attached to this common virus and highlight just how important cervical screening is, no matter what your age or relationship status.

“With HPV screening being rolled out in early 2020 in Scotland, we have a real opportunity to eradicate cervical cancer.

“The screening technology has the potential to save hundreds of lives a year – but it is only going to be effective if women take up their screening invitations.”