New research conducted by Keele University to raise awareness about human papillomavirus (HPV), the leading cause of cervical cancer, found that health professionals across the UK are not as well informed as they should be.
This week is Cervical Screening Awareness Week, which aims to raise awareness about cervical and HPV screening for the general public, but also for health professionals, including GPs, nurses, and consultants.
The research, conducted by Dr. Sue Sherman of Keele University in conjunction with Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust and published in the European Journal of Public Health, found that a quarter of the 643 health professionals surveyed felt that HPV always needed treatment, when in fact this does not happen, only the cell changes they cause can be treated; close to a room they did not know and were not sure how common HPV is; and almost 7% thought HPV causes HIV / AIDS or they were not sure.
In the United Kingdom, women are currently invited to participate in cervical screening every three years, from the ages of 25 to 49 and every five years, from 50 to 64. When a woman attends a screening, a health professional picks up a sample of cells from the cervix. With the exception of Wales and some pilot sites in England, this sample of cells is examined for pre-cancerous changes. In England, if borderline changes are found, then a HPV test is conducted and if the test is positive the woman is referred for further testing. In Wales and at pilot sites, the HPV test first occurs, which is a common infection to which 80% of sexually active adults will be exposed during life.
In the UK, there are about 3,200 new diagnoses and 900 deaths from cervical cancer each year, according to Cancer Research UK, 2017, and between 2011 and 2018 the number of women who participated in the screening fell 4.3 %.
Dr. Sherman, who specializes in public awareness and the psychological impact of issues related to cervical screening and HPV, says that the gap in the knowledge of health professionals needs to be addressed so that misunderstandings are not passed on to the public, causing a reduction in the frequency of exams.
Dr. Sherman said:
This latest research, conducted in conjunction with the Jo & # 39; s Cervical Cancer Trust, demonstrates that more education is needed to enable health professionals to stay informed about the changes that are occurring in the cervical screening program. HPV is extremely common, with 4 out of 5 of us probably coming in contact with it. Unfortunately, in part because of the sexually transmitted nature of the virus, some women may feel embarrassed over the positive test for HPV. As changes in the screening program are implemented, informed health professionals can help ensure that this potential for embarrassment does not further reduce the frequency of screening. "
Earlier this year, England will replace cervical screening with the HPV test as the primary screening method for cervical cancer, since HPV accounts for 99.7% of cervical cancers, which develops in the absence of HPV. Scotland will introduce primary HPV testing in 2020 and Northern Ireland has yet to confirm its dates. But Dr. Sherman recently published interview results that revealed that, because of the sexually transmitted nature of HPV, some women, for example, in long-term relationships, would feel uncomfortable testing for HPV, even knowing it was a test to prevent cervical cancer.
Dr. Sherman is also concerned that the switch to HPV screening may result in more women from some religious and cultural backgrounds who have chosen not to participate in the screening.
Robert Music, executive director of Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust:
With the cervical screening program switching to the HPV test first, more women will be told they have HPV. HPV can be confusing, but it affects most of us, so we need to increase understanding about it. GPs and health professionals will have more conversations with patients about HPV when they come in to discuss their results and it is essential that they be prepared to answer questions, especially about the daily impact of HPV. They must take the lead to ensure that people do not feel ashamed or afraid of getting the virus. "
Sherman, S.M. et al. (2019) A survey of knowledge, attitudes and awareness of human papillomavirus among healthcare professionals across the UK. European Journal of Public Health. https://doi.org/10.1093/eurpub/ckz113.