Human papilloma virus: shaming women could put off cancer screening

Human papilloma virus: shaming women could put off cancer screening
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The social stigmas and myths surrounding the human papilloma virus (HPV) could make women anxious, and potentially deter them from getting cervical screening.

According to research presented at Cancer Research UK’s Early Diagnosis Conference in Birmingham, UK, the negative perceptions regarding the human papilloma virus could have a detrimental influence on women, including raising fears about their partners’ fidelity and putting them off going for cervical screening.

The misconceptions of the human papilloma virus

Sara Hiom, Cancer Research UK’s director of early diagnosis, explains: “It is really concerning that there’s so much misunderstanding about HPV. It’s a very common virus and most of the time, it will sit dormant and not cause a problem.”

A survey of more than 2,000 women by Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust showed that the vast range of stigmas associated with HPV included shame, fear and promiscuity.

Nearly 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.

Seven in 10 women would be scared to hear they had HPV and two thirds would worry it meant they had cancer.

Understanding the link between HPV and cancer

Many women who responded did not understand the link between HPV and cancer. One in three where unaware that it could cause cervical cancer and almost all of them did not know it can cause throat or mouth cancer.

Researchers found that only 15% of those questioned realised HPV was commonplace.

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.

Him adds: “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.

“Every woman has the choice whether to go for screening but busting the myths and removing the stigmas surrounding HPV is vital to ensure people feel more confident to book and turn up for their cervical screening appointment.”

Addressing misunderstandings

Presenting at Cancer Research UK’s Early Diagnosis conference, 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.”


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