HPV Stigma Makes People Less Likely To Get Cervical Cancer Screenings, A New Study Says

by Sanam Yar
A woman with HPV sitting on a hospital bed
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Social stigma surrounding sexually transmitted infections, or STIs, is not a new concept. Unfortunately, stigma persists despite the fact that STIs are quite common — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that there are nearly 20 million new infections each year in the United States. And these negative attitudes towards STIs and people who have them can have serious consequences. Beyond causing unnecessary shame and embarrassment, the stigma can contribute to hindering people from getting tested. A new survey found that many of the social stigmas surrounding HPV (human papillomavirus) are still prevalent, making experts worry the stigma may actually dissuade women from getting cervical screenings due to fear and misinformation.

The survey, conducted by UK-based charity Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, included the responses of more than 2,000 women and their thoughts and attitudes towards HPV. The results conveyed a clear lack of understanding when it comes to HPV and what the infection entails. Nearly 40 percent of participants said they would be worried about how other people would perceive them if they shared that they had HPV. More than 40 percent of participants said they’d worry their partner was unfaithful if informed that their partner had HPV.

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Fear and worry were common themes, with 70 percent of respondents admitting they’d be scared to hear they had HPV. The misunderstandings extended to both directions, too: a whopping two thirds of participants said they would worry being told they had HPV meant they had cancer, while one third didn’t know about how HPV can cause cervical cancer at all. Nearly all respondents didn’t know that HPV can cause different kinds of cancers aside from cervical, including throat and anal cancer. And despite being one of the most common sexually transmitted infections, affecting an estimated eight in 10 sexually active people in some form throughout their lifetime, only 15 percent of participants knew HPV was common.

"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,” said Sara Hiom, Cancer Research UK's director of early diagnosis, in a statement. "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.”

HPV, which is transmitted through intimate skin-to-skin contact (like vaginal, oral, or anal sex) with someone who has the virus, is usually a symptomless infection. There are myriad types of the virus, and while some cause warts on genitals and other parts of the body, others can cause cell changes that turn into cervical cancer. "[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,” explained Hiom.

Cervical screenings (aka pap smears or test) take place at your annual gynecologist appointment or upon request at your doctor, and detect abnormal cell changes that could be precursors to cervical cancer. New guidelines state that people with cervixes aged 21-29 can be tested with a pap smear alone every three years, and people aged 30-65 can choose to have a pap smear alone every three years, or a pap smear with an HPV test every five years.

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Robert Music, the chief executive of Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust, also commented on how the high levels of shame and fear towards HPV were worrying. “We must normalize the virus to ensure people fully understand what it means to have it," he said during a presentation at Cancer Research UK's Early Diagnosis conference where the survey results were discussed.

It’s disconcerting to see such a gap of understanding when it comes to sexual health and the importance of screenings, especially in a climate where more and more people are embracing sex-positivity and their sexuality. The survey results highlight the necessity for better sex education and understanding of STIs. As the stigma around sex is eroding away, the stigma surrounding STIs should be, too.