Misplaced fears cervical cancer HPV screening will reveal partner's infidelity could deter smear tests, charity warns

'Concerning' that misunderstanding and stigma around common viral infection is rife, experts say

Alex Matthews-King
Health Correspondent
Wednesday 13 February 2019 01:03 GMT
HPV testing for smear tests already occurs in Wales and is being rolled out in England in 2019
HPV testing for smear tests already occurs in Wales and is being rolled out in England in 2019 (Rex)

Women could be being put off life-saving cervical cancer screening because of misplaced fears that a positive result would mean their partner has cheated on them, experts have warned.

Despite the human papilloma virus (HPV) being widespread among sexually active people, this stigma could mean it is harder to encourage women to attend regular smear tests, according to research by Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust.

The charity’s calls for the infection to be “normalised” came as a more accurate screening test for cervical cancer is rolled out in parts of the UK. The test, which launches in England later this year, checks for the presence of HPV before looking for abnormal cells that could become cancerous.

In a survey of more than 2,000 women, the charity found 40 per cent would be worried that testing positive for HPV in a routine cervical cancer screening would mean their partner had cheated.

The same proportion were concerned about what other people might think of them if they found out they had the virus, and two thirds said they would be worried it meant they had cancer.

“We must address the level of misunderstanding that exists around HPV,” said Robert Music, chief executive of the charity, ahead of a presentation of their research at the Cancer Research UK Early Diagnosis Research Conference on Wednesday.

“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.”

Two types of high-risk HPV account for around 70 per cent of cervical cancer cases. The virus – which also causes genital warts – is primarily spread through vaginal, anal or oral sex.

HPV is widespread, and eight out of 10 women will encounter a strain of the virus at some point in their lives. In most cases it is harmlessly cleared up by the immune system without causing symptoms but it can sit dormant and be transmitted to partners in future.

Testing samples for the presence of HPV will not change the smear test but will mean women at risk of cervical cancer can be identified at an earlier stage and prioritised for further tests if needed.

However, seven in 10 women who responded to the survey said they would be scared to hear they had HPV and two thirds would worry it meant they had cancer.

“It’s really concerning that there’s so much misunderstanding about HPV,” said Sara Hiom, Cancer Research UK’s director of early diagnosis.

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“It’s a very common virus and most of the time, it will sit dormant and not cause a problem.”

Busting these myths and tackling stigma will mean more women feel confident to book and turn up for their cervical screening appointment, she added.

Uptake of cervical screening has fallen to a 21-year low with just 71 per cent of women invited to routine screening between the age of 25 and 64 attending.

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