Most people in the UK do not know that cervical cancer is linked to a common sexually transmitted virus, according to a Cancer Research UK study1.
Over 99 per cent of cases of cervical cancer are associated with the human papillomavirus (HPV) and the NHS is currently running a pilot study to see whether the addition of testing for HPV could improve the existing cervical screening programme.
The authors of today’s paper say that HPV testing should only be introduced alongside a public education programme to ensure that people know about the virus and understand what the test means.
“HPV infection is the main risk factor for cervical cancer,” says lead author Jo Waller of Cancer Research UK’s Health Behaviour Unit at University College London.
“But our research shows that less that one per cent of the population know about the link.”
HPV infection is extremely common, affecting 70 per cent of the sexually active population at some time in their lives. In most people the infection is harmless and has no obvious symptoms. It is usually cleared by the body’s immune system without causing any problems, but in some women the infection persists and can eventually lead to cervical cancer.
The risk of getting an HPV infection increases with the number of sexual partners but it is possible to catch the virus from just one sexual partner and be unaware of it for years.
A test for high-risk forms of the virus already exists and many experts believe that testing for HPV could prevent more cases of cervical cancer.
The new research, a survey of 2,000 people, showed that 38 per cent of people say they do not know what causes cervical cancer. Only 14 per cent mentioned sexual transmission and just 0.6 per cent could name HPV.
“If women are to be offered testing for HPV they also need to be offered information,” says Professor Jane Wardle, Director of Cancer Research UK’s Health Behaviour Unit.
“Testing positive for certain types of the virus means a higher risk of cervical cancer, but most women who have the infection will never get cervical cancer.
“With such low levels of public awareness, we’re concerned that the possible introduction of HPV testing could cause confusion.
“It’s vital that both men and women know that HPV is common and that anyone who has sex is likely to come into contact with it.”
The survey also found that over 14 per cent of people correctly identified smoking as a risk factor for cervical cancer.
Professor Robert Souhami, Cancer Research UK’s Director of Clinical and External Affairs says: “This research is significant because it identifies a large and very important gap in the public’s knowledge of the causes of cancer.
“If HPV testing is introduced, it must be accompanied with good information on the virus and what the test means.”
Cancer Research UK has recently published a new information leaflet on preventing cervical cancer. Written in plain English, the leaflet contains information on screening, HPV and other risk factors (see www.cancerresearchuk.org/ leaflets/).
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About 3,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year in the UK. It is the second most common form of cancer in women under 35 years old.
Cervical screening saves the lives of thousands of women ever year.
Smoking doubles the risk of developing cervical cancer.
In the UK, women between the ages of 25 and 64 are invited for cervical screening at least every five years.
For more information on cervical cancer or HPV, visit Cancer Research UK’s patient information website, CancerHelp UK