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Most women in the dark about HPV

Awareness about human papillomavirus (HPV) infection and its link to cervical cancer, is relatively low among American women, according to a survey of 3,076 women 18 to 75 years of age.
/ Source: Reuters

Awareness about human papillomavirus (HPV) infection and its link to cervical cancer, is relatively low among American women, according to a survey of 3,076 women 18 to 75 years of age.

Only 40 percent of women responding to the 2005 Health Information National Trends Survey had ever heard about HPV and, of those, less than 20 percent knew that HPV could sometimes lead to cervical cancer.

Sixty-four percent of women knew that HPV was sexually transmitted and 79 percent knew it could cause abnormal Pap smears.

“Therefore, one of our main findings is that being aware of HPV does not guarantee accurate knowledge,” Dr. Jasmin A. Tiro, of the National Cancer Institute, Bethesda, Maryland, told the American Association for Cancer Research’s Frontiers in Cancer Prevention Research Meeting in Boston.

Younger women, those with higher education levels, and those exposed to more health information were more likely to have heard about HPV. “But the only factors associated with having accurate knowledge -- knowing that it could lead to cervical cancer -- was an abnormal Pap test or testing positive on an HPV test,” Tiro said.

“This suggests that most women are finding out about HPV after experiencing a negative consequence,” she said.

HPV is a very common sexually transmitted infection but in most women there are no symptoms and infection often clears without treatment so most women do not have the opportunity to learn from their doctor that HPV can become persistent and then can develop into cervical cancer.

In June 2006, the US Food and Drug Administration approved the first vaccine to block infection by certain high-risk types of HPV. The vaccine is recommended for women 9 to 26 years of age.

This survey, Tiro noted, was performed before the HPV vaccine was approved, so it therefore provides good comparison data to measure future levels of HPV knowledge in the American population. A similar survey looking at HPV awareness is planned for 2007.

Summing up, Tiro said “we need to increase women’s knowledge of HPV and cervical cancer before chances of them becoming infected so that they can protect themselves, because cervical cancer is one our greatest success stories from a screening perspective in that women do have options to prevent and detect cervical cancer early.”