High levels of shame and ignorance are associated with HPV, the sexually-transmitted virus which affects 80% of people, a survey has discovered.
The government is rolling out HPV testing as part of routine screenings for cervical cancer.
Nearly half of the women surveyed believed their partner must have cheated if they had HPV, but the virus can remain dormant for years.
Campaigners fear women may not attend screenings because of the stigma.
The survey of 2,000 women was done by Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust last month.
It found that half of the women were embarrassed and “put off sex” as a result of contracting the virus.
Around 35% of the women had no idea what HPV is, and nearly 60% said they thought it meant they had cancer.
Laura Flaherty, 31, who was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2016, is typical of the respondents.
“When I first saw on my letter that I had been diagnosed as being HPV positive, I didn’t know what it was. When I Googled it I discovered it was a sexually transmitted infection, so I automatically thought my partner had been cheating.
“I knew nothing about it, and it felt dirty. I didn’t realise it could lay dormant for so long and when I realised how common HPV is I was shocked. No-one I spoke to had heard of it, yet most of us are going to contract it.”
Busting the HPV myths
Myth: You can only get the virus through sexual intercourse
Fact: HPV is usually sexually transmitted, but it can also be transmitted by any skin-to-skin contact in the genital and oral areas
Myth: HPV is a sign of being promiscuous
Fact: 80% of us will contract HPV virus at some point in our lives, it’s easy to get and pass on and you can get it the first time you have any sexual contact.
Myth: HPV means I’ve got cancer
Fact: There are about 200 types of HPV. About 40 types affect the genital area, simply meaning they will live there, a few can cause unpleasant but harmless conditions like genital warts. Around 13 high-risk types can cause cervical cancer and other cancers of the genitals as well as mouth and throat cancer, but this is rare.
Myth: You’ll know if you have HPV
Fact: HPV is symptomless and in most cases the immune system will clear the infection. Cervical screening picks up any abnormal cells
Source: Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust
The survey comes as a government initiative to test for HPV first in cervical screening, before other conditions, starts in Wales next week. It will roll out to England by 2019 and be implemented in Scotland in 2020, but there is no date for its introduction in Northern Ireland.
The change means that more women will be told that they have HPV.
Robert Music, Chief Executive, Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, said: “Testing for HPV first is a far more effective way of identifying those most at risk of cervical cancer. This change to the programme does mean more women will be told they have HPV.
“HPV can be confusing however, so we must normalise it to ensure people don’t feel ashamed or scared about being told they have the virus.”
HPV infection is rapidly declining in girls aged between 12 and 18 as a result of the HPV vaccine introduced in 2008.
Last year, the vaccine was extended to gay men aged 16 to 45, and in July the government announced that it will also be extended to boys, although no start date has yet been given.
There are no plans to extend the HPV vaccine to other adults over the age of 18, as the likelihood of already having the infection are high, and therefore the vaccine would be ineffective.
Dr Philippa Kaye, GP and author said: “GPs and health professionals will be having more conversations with patients about HPV as they come in to discuss their results. Understanding how it is transmitted and the relative risks will help reduce the stigma surrounding it.”