Women could be put off smear tests because they fear the results will imply promiscuity, according to new research. Polling of more than 2,000 women found that around four in ten thought that being diagnosed with the human papilloma virus (HPV) – which can cause cervical cancer – was a cause of shame.
Around eight in ten women will become infected with HPV at some point over their lifetimes, but only those with specific high-risk types of the virus will go on to develop cancer.
The survey by charity Jo’s Cervical Cancer trust found that four in ten women would be worried about what people thought of them if their smear test results detected HPV.
And they were equally fearful that the result meant their partner had been unfaithful – although the virus can lie dormant for decades.
The findings, presented at Cancer Research UK’s early diagnosis conference in Birmingham, comes as the NHS in England prepares to replace standard cervical cancer screening, which looks for abnormal cells, with HPV screening, later this year.
Studies suggest the number who develop cancer could be cut by a fifth, because the tests detect abnormalities far earlier, when they are easier to treat.
Research suggests the number of cases each year will fall from 2,500 to 2,000 a year, under the plans.
The new poll found seven in 10 women would be scared to hear they had HPV and two thirds would worry it meant they had cancer.
Many women who responded did not understand the link between HPV and cancer. One in three did not know it can cause cervical cancer and almost all of them did not know it can cause throat or mouth cancer. Researchers found that only 15 per cent of those questioned realised HPV was commonplace.
Sara Hiom, Cancer Research UK’s director of early diagnosis, said: “It’s 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.
“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.”
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.”
“At a time when we should be making screening easier to attend it is getting harder and harder to access.
“Many women struggle to get screening appointments at their GP, access through sexual health is declining and there is limited provision for those requiring extra support.
“We have a highly effective programme, yet it is being delivered on an IT system which is ready to collapse.
“We are being left behind by countries such as Australia, where advancements including HPV self-sampling are now part of the programme and where elimination of cervical cancer is truly on the horizon.
“We cannot sit back and let cervical screening coverage continue to plummet or diagnoses of this often preventable cancer will rise and more mothers, daughters, sisters and friends will be lost.”
Figures from Cancer Research UK show that there were 3,126 new cases of cervical cancer in Britain in 2015. Meanwhile, 854 people died from the disease in 2016.