U.S. Women Are Poorly Informed About Human Papillomavirus and Cervical Cancer

Cancer Connect

According to an article published in Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers and Prevention, only 40% of U.S. women have heard of human papillomavirus (HPV) and less than 50% of these women are aware that it can cause cervical cancer.

Human papillomavirus is thought to be the most common infection that is transmitted sexually. There are of more than 100 different types of HPV. Some types of HPV cause warts on the hands or feet; others cause genital warts; and some have been linked with cancer, most notably cervical cancer. The types of HPV most commonly linked with cervical cancer are HPV 16 and HPV 18, though several other high-risk types also contribute to cancer. The types of HPV that cause cervical cancer or genital warts are transmitted sexually. HPV infection is extremely common and generally occurs soon after an individual becomes sexually active. Although most infections resolve on their own, some persist and can lead to precancerous or cancerous changes to the cervix, vulva, vagina, penis, and anus.

Recognition of the link between HPV and cervical cancer led to the development of vaccines designed to prevent infection with certain high-risk types of HPV. Gardasil®, developed by Merck, targets HPV types 6 and 11 (which are linked with genital warts) as well as the cancer-associated types 16 and 18. Gardasil was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in June 2006. Cervarix™, developed by GlaxoSmithKline, also targets HPV types 16 and 18. Recently, the American Cancer Society published guidelines for the use of HPV vaccines go prevent cervical cancer and precursors of cervical cancer (see Related News).

Researchers from the National Institutes of Health have conducted a clinical study to assess the public’s knowledge of the relationship between HPV and cervical cancer. A total of

3,076 women, ages 18-75, participated in this study.

  • 40% of women had heard of HPV but less than half of these women knew it caused cervical cancer.
  • Two thirds of women who had heard of HPV knew it was sexually transmitted and 79% of these women knew HPV was associated with abnormal Pap tests.
  • Factors associated with having heard of HPV included: younger age, being a non-Hispanic White, and having higher education, exposure to health information, regular Pap tests, awareness of cervical cancer screening guidelines, and a positive test for HPV.

These authors concluded that awareness of HPV among U.S. women was low and that many of those who knew about HPV did not have accurate knowledge. These results appear to indicate that greater education regarding HPV and its association with cervical cancer is needed among women in the U.S.

References: Tiro J, Meissner H, Kobrin S, et al. What do women in the U.S. know about human papillomavirus and cervical cancer? Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers and Prevention. 2007;16:288-294.