One in 10 women think the HPV virus is “dirty”, research suggests.
The human papillomavirus (HPV) is responsible for 99.7% of cervical-cancer cases in the UK, according to Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust.
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Spread via sexual contact, four in five people carry the virus at some point in their lives, with most fighting it off naturally.
Despite its prevalence, less than a quarter (22%) of women would consider dating someone who they knew had HPV, a survey by Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust reveals.
With cervical screenings increasingly testing for the virus, rather than just looking for pre-cancerous cell changes, experts worry how women will react to the diagnosis.
“No one should feel ashamed about having HPV,” Robert Music, chief executive of Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, said.
“We must normalise the virus to reduce the emotional impact of diagnosis, and ensure people know where to get trustworthy information and support.
“This means stripping away the stigma and getting the facts out.
“Smear tests are the best protection against cervical cancer and we want women to understand what their results mean, instead of having to navigate myths.”
Women in England and Wales will now be tested for high-risk HPV strains during their “standard” smear, with Scotland and Northern Ireland following suit “in the future”.
Those carrying the virus will then have their cell sample analysed to uncover any changes that may lead to cancer.
Testing for HPV is said to be more accurate than looking at cell changes, preventing almost 500 “extra” cases of cervical cancer a year.
Yet, with more women due to be told they have the virus, the brains at the charity worry how they will take the news.
Concerns come after their survey of more than 2,000 women revealed nearly a quarter (24%) had never heard of HPV and just 16% knew it was “common”.
“HPV is complicated but it’s so important women understand what it means to have the virus, especially how common it actually is,” GP Dr Philippa Kaye said.
“We need to smear myths such as HPV being dirty or a reflection on someone’s sexual behaviour.
“Testing for HPV in cervical screening is a fantastic change which will save lives by preventing even more cervical cancers.”
One who knows the taboo around HPV all too well is cancer-survivor Kristen.
Diagnosed with stage four cervical tumours at 44, she initially felt ashamed.
“At first, I felt really dirty and thought I had done something wrong,” Kristen said.
“My partner didn’t understand it either and initially I blamed him for giving it to me.
“I was also scared to be intimate with him for fear of the cancer coming back.
“No one should feel like this, especially when you have the biggest fight ever against cancer.”
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Kristen was not alone. The survey showed a third (33%) thought of HPV as a taboo topic, while 39% would not want anyone knowing they had it.
Two in five (40%) worried a diagnosis would “negatively impact their dating life”, while 43% would be concerned it would affect them having sex.
Half would even consider dumping their other half if they discovered they had the virus.
Many (41%) would not have sex with someone with HPV, while nearly a quarter (23%) would refuse to even kiss someone carrying the virus.
This is despite it largely being spread via vaginal, oral or anal sex.
In rare cases, touching the genitals or sharing sex toys can be to blame.
While condoms and other barrier methods of contraception can help ward off HPV, they only cover part of the genitals, with the virus living on the skin in and around the whole “private” area.
Nearly half (46%) of those surveyed thought protected sex eliminated the risk of virus transmission.
This highlights the confusion over how common the virus is and how it spreads, the experts claim.
It seems the psychological impact of being HPV+ is also pronounced.
More than a third (37%) of those surveyed said it would affect their confidence, while 35% worry their mental health would take a battering.
HPV can lurk “silently” in the body for many years undetected, before causing genital warts or showing up in a check-up.
If a test revealed an infection, more than half (57%) of those surveyed would assume their partner has cheated.
Worryingly, just 11% thought couples in long-term relationships are still at risk of HPV.