Women Misinformed About HPV-Cancer Link

Media Coverage of HPV Testing Blurs Cervical Cancer Link

From the WebMD Archives

Dec. 3, 2003 -- Few women have heard of the most common sexually transmitted disease, and even if they have they are probably misinformed.

New research shows that women are confused about the link between the human papillomavirus (HPV) and cervical cancer, and recent media coverage of HPV has only added to that confusion.

Two studies in the Jan. 15 issue of Cancer highlight the gaps in women's knowledge about HPV and assess the media's job of covering the common sexually transmitted disease (STD).

What Women Don't Know About HPV

Researchers say that in the last decade it's become clear that about 20 of the suspected 230 different types of HPV are considered high risk due to their association with cervical cancer. In addition, the HPV types associated with genital warts are now considered low risk because they are rarely associated with cervical cancer.

But the results of eight focus groups with 48 ethnically diverse women show that there are still serious gaps in women's knowledge about the link between HPV and cervical cancer. Most of the women in the study had reported that they had never heard of HPV. Researchers found that in women who were aware of the association between the virus and cervical cancer, most overestimated the likelihood that women infected with HPV would develop cervical cancer, and few were aware that HPV infection often goes away on its own without treatment.

Many women were also confused that Pap smear results could be normal even if HPV was present, and most women were focused on the fact that HPV is a sexually transmitted disease rather than its potential to cause cancer.

Media Coverage of HPV

In the second study, researchers analyzed the content of 111 new stories about HPV from the 10 most circulated newspapers and the major broadcast television networks from January 1995 through July 2002.

Researchers found 36% of the stories were about new genetic tests for HPV, 30% of the stories focused on cervical cancer or its link to HPV, and 27% emphasized sexually transmitted diseases or genital warts.

The study showed that many stories failed to include basic information about HPV that women in the first study expressed interest in knowing, which heightens their anxiety about the condition.


For example, most of the stories (79%) mentioned the fact that HPV is an STD, but only half reported that it's very common. Only about a quarter of the reports stated that most women with HPV will not develop cervical cancer.

Many of the stories were also missing vital information on HPV prevention, transmission, and symptoms. Even if the stories presented using condoms as a means of preventing HPV infection, few mentioned research that shows condoms are imperfect at blocking HPV infection.

Researchers say that infection with HPV usually does not cause any symptoms and does not always produce visible genital warts.

Stressing the Truths About HPV

In an editorial that accompanies the studies, Bradley J. Monk, MD, of the University of California at Irvine, and colleagues say these studies highlight the public's misconceptions about the association between HPV and cervical cancer.

"Their findings suggest that it is little wonder that the public is informed so inadequately about the virus, the consequences of infection, and the natural history of cervical [cancer]," they write.

The editorialists say that the first step in improving the public's knowledge of HPV is to clearly state the truths about HPV infection, stressing six basic points:

  1. HPV is a sexually transmitted disease.
  2. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease.
  3. The overwhelming majority of women with HPV will not develop cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is an extremely rare complication of a common infection.
  4. The spontaneous resolution of HPV is common.
  5. Most women who test positive for high-risk HPV will not be diagnosed with cervical cancer or a precancerous condition upon further evaluation.
  6. The purpose of a Pap smear is to detect HPV-related lesions, including cervical cancer, and their precursors.
WebMD Health News Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on December 03, 2003


SOURCES: Anhang, R. Monk, B. Cancer, Jan. 15, 2004; vol 100.

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