A CHARITY is breaking down stigma around HPV amid fears that those affected are living with shame and confusion.

New research by Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust shows that only half of those who have HPV (human Papillomavirus) on their cervical screening results know what it is.

The number of service users coming to the charity has doubled over the last few years, in line with HPV primary screening being introduced through the UK. Users regularly report feeling confused, ashamed and terrified.

Cervical cancer is rare with 3,200 diagnoses every year while HPV, the cause of the disease, is extremely common affecting eight in 10 in their lifetime. 

The body will normally clear the infection without it causing harm, however lack of awareness of the virus means almost everyone who is told they have HPV fears that they have cancer.

It comes after a plea from York's public health teams for women and those with a cervix to take up screenings when offered.

Cllr Carol Runciman, Executive Member for Health and Adult Social Care at City of York Council, said: “The NHS is open to those who need it and we strongly encourage everyone to attend medical appointments when they are invited to do so.

"Cervical screening tests are really important in identifying and helping to prevent cervical cancer and I would urge anyone who is eligible to attend an appointment.

“Doctors surgeries have extensive measures in place to help keep patients and staff safe.

"We all have a part to play in looking after our own health and the early detection and treatment of issues is the best approach for all of us so if you have been invited for a cervical screening please book an appointment.”

Cervical screening in England, Scotland and Wales uses HPV primary screening which is a more sensitive and accurate test than the previous testing method of looking for cell changes.

It helps find those at higher risk of cervical cancer earlier. As a result more women and people with a cervix are learning they have the virus. Northern Ireland is yet to move and still uses cytology as the first test on samples.

The charity warns that unless HPV stigma and confusion is tackled, years of work to remove stigma in cervical screening risks being undone and thousands needlessly experience these feelings.

The charity surveyed members of its community who have had HPV and found high numbers reported feeling anxious - over 7 in 10 - while more than 4 in 10 felt ashamed.

HPV has been the most popular topic on their expert clarification service for the last two years and 2nd most popular topic on their Helpline. The charity’s support services have also seen an increase in health anxiety relating to HPV.

Misconceptions around the nature of HPV, and its relation to sexually transmitted infections, can lead to concerns around promiscuity, infidelity and even relationship breakdown which the Trust regularly hear through their services.

Almost 4 in 10 reported being worried about telling their partner and almost two in 10 worried that a partner had cheated. Half of those surveyed were worried about sex and intimacy after learning they have HPV.

Focus groups and interviews carried out by the charity found that a HPV diagnosis can cause those affected to resort to drastic lifestyle changes to try to get rid of the virus, such as changing eating habits, cutting out alcohol, buying expensive supplements which are not proven to clear HPV, and avoiding sex.

There is no HPV test for men, meaning that the emotional strain of a HPV diagnosis can fall to women. The charity wants to see an increase in education about HPV from an earlier age to reduce the impact across the life course.

During Cervical Screening Awareness Week (14-20 June) it is encouraging conversation and sharing experiences about the virus in order to reduce isolation and anxiety.

Sam Dixon, Chief Executive of Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust: “Increasing cervical screening attendance remains vital but we must not overlook the support that is often required after the test. HPV is so common and yet those affected tell us they often feel isolated. We regularly hear about anxiety, worry and even relationship break downs because of those three letters.

"Increasing HPV understanding must go hand in hand with cervical screening awareness so that everyone understands their results, and this very normal thing becomes normalised.”

Dr Anita Mitra (aka the Gynae Geek), Academic Specialty Registrar in Obstetrics and Gynaecology, and Clinical Research Fellow: “I often meet patients who are very scared to receive their cervical screening results telling them they have HPV.

"I always describe it as 'like the common cold that you get on your cervix; most of us are going to get it at some point, and most infections clear quickly on their own without causing long-term health problems.'

"However, if the HPV isn’t cleared it can cause cervical changes including cervical cancer. And that is why we check for HPV as part of the cervical screening test.

"It's also important to be clear that it isn't a sign of promiscuity, infidelity or poor hygiene. If you're worried, please talk to a healthcare professional so that we can address your concerns and answer any questions that you have.”