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HPV stigma must end says charity

Thu, 13/09/2018 - 08:26
  • New survey of 2,034 women has found shame, fear and promiscuity myths are all associated with the virus
  • 95% are unaware it can be contracted through protected sex
  • Cervical screening in the UK is moving to testing for HPV first starting in Wales next week 

New research[1] by Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust has revealed two out of five women (39%) would be worried what people thought of them if they were told they had HPV. Worryingly 41.7% would worry their partner had been unfaithful.

With the cervical screening programmes moving to testing for HPV first[2], starting with Wales next week, more women will be told they have HPV. The charity wants to reduce some of the myths and anxiety surrounding the virus to ensure women fully understand what their results mean and are not put off attending potentially life-saving cervical screening. Its latest research found high numbers of women would be scared (68%) or embarrassed (51%) if told they had HPV.

HPV is a very common virus which 80% of people will have in their life, however of the 2,034 women surveyed just one in seven (15%) thought it was common with two thirds (62%) thinking under half of people would have it in their life.

The charity is concerned that lack of understanding is perpetuating stigma and myths. HPV can be dormant in the body for many years, meaning it can be difficult to know when or from who it was contracted, yet over a third (35%) of those surveyed were unaware it can be in the body for many years. If they were told they had HPV 41% would worry about telling their partner, while 8% think you can’t get it if you’ve only been with one sexual partner and 5% don’t think you can get it if you’re a lesbian.

Robert Music, Chief Executive, Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust: “Testing for HPV first is a far more effective way of identifying those most at risk of cervical cancer and an extremely positive step in reducing the impact of the disease. This change to the programme does mean more women will be told they have HPV. HPV can be confusing however it affects the majority of us so we must normalise it to ensure people don’t feel ashamed or scared about being told they have the virus.”

A third of respondents hadn’t heard of HPV (29%) and, even though the virus is responsible for 99.7% of cervical cancers and 5% of all cancers, over a third (37%) were unaware of what is causes.

Dr Philippa Kaye, GP and author, said: "The move to HPV testing will enable better identification of those who are most at risk of developing cervical cancer. It also means GPs and health professionals will be having more conversations with patients about HPV as they come in to discuss their results and concerns. 80% of people will have HPV so increased education about the virus among both men and women is vital, understanding how it is transmitted and the relative risks will help reduce stigma surrounding it."

Laura was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2016: “When I saw on my letter that I had been diagnosed as being HPV positive I didn’t know what it was. I googled it and it said it was an STI so I automatically thought my partner had been cheating on me. I knew nothing about it, it felt dirty it wasn’t nice. I didn’t realise it could lay dormant for so long and when I realised how common HPV was I was shocked. It’s so much more common than any virus I’ve heard of yet so few people knew about it. Everyone I spoke had never heard of it and yet most of us are going to contract this.”

Further findings of the research include:

  • Lack of understanding about how HPV is contracted: Almost all (95%) respondents don’t know it can be contracted through protected vaginal sex with over one in eight thinking it is passed through needles (13%) or blood (15%). High numbers were unaware it can still be contracted through unprotected sex, (vaginal 46%, anal 66% and oral 65%).
  • Under a third (32%) are unaware of the link to cervical cancer and the majority don’t know it can cause throat (94%) and mouth (93%) cancer.


Notes to editors

For further information, interviews or comment please contact [email protected] or 020 3096 8100

About Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust (www.jostrust.org.uk)

The UK’s only dedicated charity offering support and information to women of all ages and their loved ones affected by cervical cancer and cervical abnormalities. The National Helpline is on 0808 802 8000.

About the research

The survey of 2,034 women aged 16-64 was carried out by Censuswide from 02.08.2018 - 06.08.2018.

Further findings include:

  • Only a third (37%) know it is a virus, with high numbers thinking an STI (28%), bacteria (20%), a disease (20%) or herpes (9%)
  • A third (35%) incorrectly think HPV has symptoms
  • A third (31%) think that HPV can be treated with antibiotics
  • Only 24% know smoking makes it harder to clear HPV infection
  • 6.2% think it causes HIV
  • 71% feel positive or indifferent about moving to HPV testing
  • Lack of awareness of who is at risk: A quarter (24%) don’t know, only a fifth (18%) know it is anyone who has been sexually active in their life and over a quarter (27%) thought is was anyone who is currently sexually active. 13.8% multiple partners and 9.3% sex workers
  • If told they had HPV two thirds (59%) would worry they had cancer, 35% would have no idea what it means, 53% would wonder who gave it to them, 48% would be put off having sex with their partner and 66% would worry it would impact them for the rest of their life

[1] Survey of 2,034 women aged 16-64 carried out by Censuswide from 02.08.2018 - 06.08.2018