Women Unaware Cervical Cancer Caused by Virus

Women Unaware Cervical Cancer Caused by Virus

Americans are in the dark about a virus linked to cervical cancer that can kill them, two new studies suggest.

A vaccine exists to protect against types of the virus, called human papillomaviruses (HPV). But when presented under the umbrella of sexually-transmitted-disease protection, women are less likely to get vaccinated.

Every year in the United States, about 6.2 million people get HPV. Anyone who has ever had genital contact with another person can get HPV. Both men and women can get it — and pass it on to their sex partners — without even realizing it.

The studies were presented today at the American Association for Cancer Research's Frontiers in Cancer Prevention Research meeting in Boston.

Public awareness

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) analyzed data collected from 3,000 women ranging from 18 to 75 in age.

  • Only 40 percent of the women had ever heard about the virus.
  • Fewer than half of the participants knew of the link between the virus and cervical cancer.
  • 64 percent knew that HPV could be sexually transmitted.
  • 79 percent knew it could cause abnormal Pap smears.

The researchers concluded that the public needs education about HPV and cervical cancer in order to make appropriate decisions for prevention strategies, including Pap tests to detect the virus.

Controversial vaccine

Last June, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first vaccine to prevent infection of four HPV types, which together cause 70 percent of cervical cancers and 90 percent of genital warts. An advisory committee recommended the vaccine for females 9 to 26 years of age.

Ideally, females should get the vaccine before they are sexually active since the vaccine is most effective in girls who have not yet acquired the virus, which is sexually transmitted.

Targeting younger women for the HPV vaccine has sparked controversy among those that suggest, like condoms, protecting against effects of sexual activity equates with promoting sex.

Presentation matters

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania gauged how the vaccine’s portrayal in the media would affect attitudes toward vaccination among women.

They surveyed 635 adults over the age of 18, about half of whom were women, assigning each to read one of three paragraphs about the vaccine, each emphasizing a different perspective:

  • The vaccine protects against cervical cancer.
  • The vaccine protects against cervical cancer and sexually transmitted infections.
  • The vaccine protects against cervical cancer, sexually transmitted infections and may or may not lead to increased sexual promiscuity among those vaccinated.

More than half had heard of HPV, but 80 percent indicated never having talked to a health care provider about the virus. 

When women read that the vaccine protects only against cervical cancer, 63 percent indicated they were "very likely" or "somewhat likely" to get vaccinated, compared with 43 percent of those who read the vaccine protects against cervical cancer and a sexually transmitted infection.

The National Cancer Institute plans to track public education of the virus and vaccine to make sure that all women have accurate knowledge about HPV and how to prevent cervical cancer, said Jasmin Tiro of NCI.

Jeanna Bryner
Live Science Editor-in-Chief

Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.