HPV is a common virus that most of us will get in our lives. Yet our survey revealed a lot of misconceptions around HPV. We look at what people in Yorkshire know (and don’t know) and bust some HPV myths along the way.
So what does ‘HPV’ mean to you?
HPV might mean a lot to you. It might be something you’ve only vaguely heard of. Or maybe you haven’t a clue what it is. It doesn’t matter – what matters is that we’re talking about it now.
HPV stands for human papillomavirus. It’s the name given to a group of viruses, some of which can cause cancer. Chances are, you will get HPV at some point; around four in five people will in their lifetime. It can be carried and passed on by both men and women, causes no symptoms, and is spread through any sexual activity, protected or unprotected.
Most of the time, the immune system clears an HPV infection by itself, and you may never have known you had it. But sometimes it can’t be cleared, which is when it can cause problems.
HPV is very common and rarely leads to cancer. However, almost all (99%) of cervical cancers are caused by HPV and it also causes some anal, genital, mouth and throat cancers. A persistent HPV infection can cause the cells of the cervix to change over time. These might develop into cervical cancer if not monitored or treated.
Given that HPV is something so common, so easily spread, and could have an important impact on health, it’s surprising that it’s not talked about more often. That’s something we want to change, and it’s why we have launched our HPV Explained campaign.
In February this year, we commissioned a survey of more than 2000 people in Yorkshire to find out how much women and men in our region know about HPV.
What do people in Yorkshire know about HPV?
Overall, seven in 10 people had heard of HPV, and four in 10 said they knew what it is. However, there was a difference between the sexes, with 55% of women versus 30% of men knowing what HPV is.
Almost all cervical cancers are caused by HPV – something that 36% of people (and 28% of women) in our survey didn’t know.
How is HPV spread?
Our survey also revealed some of the gaps in knowledge around how HPV is passed from one person to another.
Half of people in our survey believed that HPV is a sexually transmitted infection (STI). But while it is true that HPV is spread through sexual contact, it doesn’t have to be penetrative sex – you can get HPV from any skin-to-skin contact of the genital area. It can even be transmitted during protected sex – something only a quarter (24%) of people in our survey knew. You don’t have to have lots of sexual partners to get HPV; you can get it the first time you’re sexually active.
So, as the spread of HPV cannot be prevented and an infection cannot be treated, HPV is different. Only one in five (21%) knew that most people would get HPV in their lifetime.
Nevertheless, because you can get HPV through sexual activity, it can make talking about it all the more awkward. Add to this the connection to cancer, and perhaps it’s not surprising that half (50%) of the people in our survey believe there is a stigma around having HPV.
This stigma becomes apparent when looking at how people in our survey felt about potentially testing positive for HPV.
What impact might HPV have on a person’s life?
Cervical screening tests for HPV, so that those at high risk can be monitored regularly and receive treatment if needed.
A positive test result doesn’t mean someone already has cancer, or that they definitely will develop a cancer in the future.
Yet many people in our survey were anxious about potentially finding out they had HPV. When women were asked how they might feel if they tested positive for HPV, common words that came up were ‘worried’, ‘scared’, and ‘upset’.
One respondent who had not tested positive for HPV said: “Even though a lot of people have it, I would be scared, and slightly embarrassed because of the stigma around STIs. I would also be scared of it becoming cancer.”
Women in our survey believed that if they were to get a positive HPV result, it would have a significant impact on their life, including their mental health (54%), sex life (50%), and confidence (41%).
A third (31%) of women in our survey believed that testing positive for HPV would have a negative effect on their relationship with their partner. They felt that they would suspect their partner had been cheating on them, or would accuse them of the same. This is despite it being possible to get HPV with your first sexual contact, and despite the fact that HPV can lie dormant in the body meaning you or your partner may have got it many years ago.
But what do people who have had HPV think? For people who had already tested positive for HPV in the past, what impact did that diagnosis have on their lives?
Although many women in our survey said they were initially worried about their positive result, in reality it had less of an impact on their life than predicted by women without a positive result.
Mental health, sex life, confidence, and relationships still came out as the main life factors affected, but the number of women reporting a negative impact was lower.
When asked how they felt after testing positive for HPV, one person in our survey said: “Surprised but cautiously optimistic. It helped that a friend had also recently tested positive.”
Another said; “I was initially quite worried but when I read the leaflet and spoke with my doctor I was less concerned.”
Let’s talk about HPV
Given what people know about HPV, who would they feel comfortable talking to about it? Of the people in our survey, almost four in five (78%) would be happy to talk to their doctor about HPV. Around half (51%) would speak to their partner, and two in five (38%) would discuss it with their friends. However, younger (25-34) and older (55+) women were the groups least likely to feel comfortable talking to anyone about HPV.
HPV is a very common virus that most of us – four in five – will get in our lifetime. It’s clear from our survey that there’s a lot of stigma and misconceptions around it. But for those invited, attending cervical screening to get tested for HPV is vitally important – it could save your life.
What can we do today? Well, the easiest and most important thing we can do is start a conversation. Talk to our friends, family members, or partners about HPV, find out what we know (and don’t know), and learn more about it together.
Want to learn more about HPV, and help us challenge misconceptions around this common infection? Watch our video HPV Explained.