Campaign raises awareness of common but ‘misunderstood’ virus

04 March 2022

A campaign has been launched by Yorkshire Cancer Research to increase awareness of the facts and reduce stigma around human papillomavirus (HPV); an infection that four in five men and women will have in their lifetime. 

HPV Explained, launched on Friday March 4th to mark International HPV Awareness Day, features people in Yorkshire who have been affected by HPV and interviews with experts, including Bradford GP and author Dr Amir Khan.

The campaign follows new research in Yorkshire that shows misunderstanding about the virus, which causes 99% of cervical cancer cases, could put people off attending cervical screening appointments. The research also found that one in two (50%) people in the region believe there is a stigma associated with HPV.

The findings come following a key change made in 2019 to the cervical screening process, which now checks for HPV first. Those screened receive a positive or negative HPV result, and those who are positive then have their sample checked for changes to cells. If present, cell changes on the cervix can then be treated before they can become cancer.

Although cervical screening is one of the best ways to protect against cervical cancer, more than 360,000 women in Yorkshire were not up to date with their screening in 2020/21.

Dr Kathryn Scott, Chief Executive at Yorkshire Cancer Research, said: “Cervical cancer is almost completely preventable. Despite this, every year in Yorkshire 250 people receive a cervical cancer diagnosis and 60 people sadly lose their lives.

“The change to HPV testing is a positive development and means that those at highest risk of cervical cancer will be monitored more regularly. However, a widespread lack of awareness and knowledge about HPV needs to be tackled to ensure those invited continue to attend cervical screening. It’s vital that both men and women know what HPV is and feel comfortable having conversations about it.”

A YouGov survey of 2,007 people in Yorkshire commissioned in February 2022 by Yorkshire Cancer Research found that one in two (50%) people who had heard of HPV believe there is a stigma around the virus. It also found that three in 10 (30%) people had never heard of HPV at all.

The survey revealed that only two in five (38%) women would feel comfortable talking about HPV with their friends and only half (51%) of those surveyed would feel comfortable talking about HPV with their partner.

Only a quarter of those surveyed (24%) were aware that HPV can be passed on through protected sex, and only a quarter (23%) knew that most HPV infections will be cleared naturally by the body. A third of people (36%) who were aware of HPV didn’t select cervical cancer when asked what they think HPV can cause.

According to the results, just three in five (61%) knew that HPV is tested for through cervical screening, and one in five (21%) were aware that most people will get HPV in their lifetime.

When asked what aspects of their lives a positive HPV result might affect, the three most common answers women who had not previously tested positive for HPV gave were ‘mental health’ (54%), ‘sex life’ (50%) and ‘confidence’ (41%). One in three (31%) of these women said a positive HPV result would have a negative effect on their relationship.

The HPV Explained campaign will share facts and address misconceptions through a short documentary and social media.

Speaking in the film, Bradford GP Dr Amir Khan said: “There are lots of different types of HPV and most of the time our immune systems will clear them. However, prolonged infections involving ‘high risk types’ of HPV can cause changes to the cells of the cervix. This can increase your risk of developing cervical cancer.

“If you receive a letter saying that your test showed the presence of HPV or that cells have changed because of HPV, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve got cancer. Usually by attending your screening we’ve picked up any problems in very early stages where we can prevent cancer from developing. The key is to attend screening so we can treat cell changes effectively.”

Dr Jo Waller, a reader in cancer behavioural science at Kings College London, who is also supporting the campaign, said: “Around three in four people take part in cervical screening. We are trying to get a better understanding of the reasons why people don’t always attend appointments. We’re interested in the psychological impact of taking part in testing and getting an HPV positive result.

“Anyone can get HPV, even if they’ve only had one partner, and even if they have only had sexual contact with one other person and not full intercourse. Four in five of us will get it at some point in our lifetime. It really shouldn’t be stigmatised.”

Sarah Bolton, Nurse Colposcopist at Hull University Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, said: “You would only ever know if you’ve got HPV relating to cervical cell changes by having a cervical screening test. That’s why it’s important to attend screening appointments. 

“Women I treat that have a cancer diagnosis often tell me they were too frightened to go to their screening appointment and they wish that they’d had one because their cancer could have been prevented.” 

Also supporting the campaign is Luxmy Gopal, presenter and reporter for BBC Look North.

She said: “It is important to normalise talking about HPV so there is greater awareness and understanding of the causes of cancer and the importance of early detection and screening.

“My message would be if you are invited to go to a screening, please go. It is so important, and it can save lives.”

Kelly Wilson, from Grimsby, found out she had HPV when she was 27. Now aged 43, Kelly said: “I went for cervical screening, and it showed I had HPV and the cell changes it had caused were very close to becoming cancer. They needed to be treated as soon as possible. I had a general anaesthetic, and they removed the abnormal cells.

“To say I was frightened is an understatement really. It caused huge amounts of health anxiety. I was very naive, very young, and very much in a mindset of these things don’t happen to people like me.

“I had regular check-ups after the cells were removed and I didn’t have to have radical treatment. I feel very lucky that it was detected. We need to step up and speak out and say these things are not taboo. Cervical screening takes just a few minutes and can save your life.”

The HPV Explained campaign will run from International HPV Awareness Day onwards.

► Find out more about HPV Explained


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