When we think of commonly-transmitted sexual infections, chlamydia might be the first one that springs to mind.
It features in daily jokes and memes, and is an exhausted topic within friendship groups. As we talk so much about chlamydia, there’s very little stigma around it.
But why aren’t the same everyday discussions happening around HPV?
Especially considering how common HPV is – and the fact the majority of people will encounter it during their life, if they are sexually active.
Instead, conversations around HPV are lacking and there’s often embarrassment and shame attached to the virus.
So why is this the case when 8 out of 10 adults will get it at some point in their lives?
It’s clear this awkwardness around the topic needs to change – and experts stress more understanding on how it’s transmitted and how prevalent it is will help this.
Nearly everyone who is sexually active will meet the virus.
Dr Julie Bowring, a consultant gynaecologist in sexual and reproductive health at London Gynaecology, says: ‘It’s really important for people to understand that having human papilloma virus (HPV) is extremely common but because of the sexually transmitted nature of HPV, people do feel a stigma attached to it.
‘However, the vast majority of adults will have been exposed to HPV at some point in their life.
‘There are many different strains of HPV and they pass easily from person to person through close skin-to-skin contact. This makes it incredibly easy to pick up and, as a result, nearly everyone who is sexually active will meet the virus.
‘Hopefully with an increase is public understanding of the high prevalence of the virus, it will in turn normalise it and make people realise there is nothing they should feel ashamed or embarrassed about.’
Anyone can get HPV from any kind of sexual contact – whether that’s skin-to-skin contact of the genital area, through vaginal, anal or oral sex, or by sharing sex toys.
It can show up later on, too – so you may not have got it from a current partner.
But because not everyone understands this, some women can be anxious about going for a smear test, in case they are told they have HPV.
Some might worry a partner will think they’ve been unfaithful if they get a HPV positive result – which, as the facts show, simply is not the case.
As the experts stress, you can have HPV even if you have not been sexually active or had a new partner for many years.
Dr Akash Patel, a GP and medical director at MyHealthcare Clinic in London, adds: ‘The virus can be transmitted through any sexual contact, including touching, and can stay dormant in the body for years before becoming active.
‘This means you can have it even if you have been with the same partner for many years.’
Valentina Milanova, the founder of Daye – a gynae health company – wants to keep spreading the message that HPV is absolutely nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed of – and hopes more open conversations will help squash the stigma.
‘We should never shy away from looking after our health – especially given how common HPV is,’ she says.
‘It is important to get our cervival screening when called, in order to monitor your HPV status, in particular any high risk HPV strains that are associated with a higher risk of cervical cancer.’
Valentina also stresses that in 9 out of 10 cases, HPV goes away on its own within two years – without any health problems.
As a result, it’s vital not to let any feelings of shame or embarrassment stop you from getting a smear test.
Julie adds: ‘Smear tests can pick up abnormal cells and HPV infections on the cervix before they become a serious issue. In the majority of women, a smear test showing HPV will not be anything to worry about, but it is understandable to be concerned.
‘HPV infections are often temporary, and your body’s immune system will clear the infection over time.
‘If you receive a smear test which shows HPV or abnormal cells, your nurse or doctor will be able to advise you on the next steps.’
This will either involve another cervical screening test in one year to see if the cells have gone, or a colposcopy test to look at your cervix.
The important thing to remember is the the earlier any abnormalities are detected, the easier they can be monitored and treated.
So it’s clear that we not only need to stay up to date with regular smear tests – but we also need to keep talking about HPV to squash any stigma once and for all.
The facts around HPV:
Knowledge is power and will also help open up more discussions.
Dr Julie has shared a few other facts around HPV:
- HPV infection is very common, more than 80% of men and women get it.
- Most people who get HPV, will clear it through their immunity.
- The HPV vaccine provides a high degree of protection against cervical cancer however it does not provide full protection. The new vaccine (Gardasil 9) prevents 90% and the old vaccine prevents 70% of all cervical cancer. Therefore, it is very important that you still attend regular screening even if you have been vaccinated to reduce your risk and have maximum protection.
- Abnormal smear does not mean you have cancer. Almost always, the abnormality is precancerous (not cancerous) and will either resolve with time or can be easily treated.
- From acquiring HPV infection to getting cervical cancer, it takes between 10 to 15 years. This means that if you have regular smear tests every three years, the abnormality is likely to be detected much before it becomes anything serious.
You, me & HPV
This week, Metro.co.uk is looking at HPV and its related cancers from a range of perspectives.
By and large HPV isn’t something to worry about – but it is something to be aware of.
HPV is something that eight in 10 of us will encounter at some stage of our lives. It’s spread through skin-to-skin contact, not just penetrative sex. There is even some evidence to suggest it can spread through deep kissing.
It isn’t tested for in a standard sexual health screening, so it’s near impossible to know when or where a person might have contracted it or who they might have passed it onto.
For most people, their bodies will fight the virus off in around one to two years without any lasting effects. For some people however, it can make them more vulnerable to cancers of the cervix, anus, head and neck, penis, vagina and vulva.
Over this week, we’ll be exploring the human issues that come with HPV and its related cancers.
For more health information, please visit Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, The Eve Appeal, the No Man campaign and The Anal Cancer Foundation.
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