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Why we need to ditch the STI label around HPV

Posted on: Thursday, 23rd January 2020 by Imogen Pinnell, Health Information Manager

How would you react if you were told you had HPV? Would you be afraid? Upset? Or simply a bit unsure of what it meant? 

Whatever your reaction, you are far from alone. Worried, upset, scared and embarrassed are just some of the words which high numbers of women used to describe HPV in new research by Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust.

What is HPV?

HPV (or human papillomavirus) is, as the name says, a virus. It can be a really confusing topic, but awareness of it is increasing as more young people are getting the HPV vaccination in schools and cervical screening is moving to a different method of looking at samples - testing for HPV.

Although it might be new to many people, HPV is really common and most of us, around 80%, will have the virus in our lives. At Jo’s we aren’t expecting everyone to be experts in HPV, but we do want to get rid of the stigma around the virus. Stigma that we see everyday through our support services and online. Our research sadly found 10% said they would feel dirty if they had the virus and large numbers said a diagnosis would negatively impact their dating life or sex life.

Is HPV an STI?

HPV is often called an STI. Sure, genital HPV, the cause of most cervical cancers, is usually passed through skin to skin contact of the genital area. However, unlike many STIs, it is impossible to fully prevent and it can be passed on during protected sex as well as unprotected sex. 

Again, unlike many STIs, HPV can’t always be detected. It can live in the body, sometimes undetected for long periods of time, meaning it is usually impossible to know when or where the virus was picked up. 

There is no treatment for HPV itself. Treatment can be offered for cervical cell changes caused by HPV, but not the virus. Most types of HPV actually do the body no harm at all and the immune system usually clears the virus, often without ever knowing you had it. 

How can we challenge the stigma around HPV?

While there are some similarities between HPV and some STIs, most of us will have HPV regardless of sexual behaviour. Therefore the level of stigma associated with the virus needs to change. Calling it an STI is only fuelling the fire and misunderstanding about HPV could actually lead to impulsive decisions or accusations which could have a life-long impact. Around half of women said they would consider ending a relationship with someone who has HPV and a quarter wouldn’t kiss someone. Given how common the virus is and how it affects the body, this is a worry.

At Jo’s we hear from women every day who read that they have HPV on their cervical screening results letter, having never heard of it before. This year was the first in which we received more calls to our Helpline about HPV than cervical screening. A 50% rise in just a year. Naturally, many are confused by what it is or unsure how they got it. We also hear from women who feel ashamed, who have been judged unfairly, or been treated differently after being told they have HPV. Some are terrified that they have cervical cancer and some are even ashamed about their cancer diagnosis because of the link to HPV. 

Testing for HPV in cervical screening is welcome news - it brings about a more sensitive way of testing which will prevent more cervical cancers and will lead to more lives saved. It also means that lots more people will be hearing about HPV and the time to smear the myths is now.

We want people to feel able to talk about HPV, to know the facts, and know where they can find support and trustworthy information. This is why the sixth year of #SmearForSmear and Cervical Cancer Prevention Week is focusing on making as much noise as we can. 

Find out how you can join the campaign this week >