Debunking the myths of HPV - Everything you need to know
Almost two-thirds of Irish people don't realise HPV can lead to cancer. Dr Robert O'Connor, Head of Research at the Irish Cancer Society, separates the fact from the fiction
We know that 300 women in Ireland are diagnosed with invasive cervical cancer each year. We know that 90 women will die from the disease each year.
But how much do we know about human papillomavirus (HPV), the insidious virus that causes 99pc of cervical cancers?
A recent survey conducted by pharmaceutical company MSD found that 65pc of Irish adults are not aware that the virus can cause cancer, while 59pc are unaware that a vaccine exists to prevent such cancers.
At least nine in 10 of the population will be exposed to HPV at some point during their lifetime, yet 87pc of those interviewed believed they have never or will never be exposed to the virus.
"False information regarding HPV has been widely circulated and we are now reaching a critical level here," says Dr Robert O'Connor, Head of Research at the Irish Cancer Society.
Here he debunks some of the most pervasive myths that are associated with the virus.
MYTH: HPV is a rare virus
At least nine in 10 of the population will be exposed to HPV in their lifetime. It's an extremely common infection. In a typical nightclub in Ireland, about a quarter of the people will be infected with a strain of genital HPV.
MYTH: There is only one type of HPV
There is somewhere in the region of 180 different strains of HPV. Some of those strains cause the external warts that we are very familiar with. About 40 strains are known to infect the genitalia, rectum or throat of human beings. Of those 40, about 12 have some sort of risk of causing a form of cancer. That risk isn't equal amongst those 12. We know that Strain 16 and, to a slightly lesser extent, Strain 18, are highly carcinogenic. Strain 16 alone is responsible for half of all of the HPV cancers. Strain 18 is responsible for about another 20pc.
MYTH: HPV has symptoms
Some HPV strains cause conventional warts; a couple of strains cause genital warts which lead to a very unpleasant outer infection of the genitalia. There are about 12 strains that cause a high risk of cancer and these are generally without any symptoms so people will not know they are infected.
MYTH: You only get HPV if you've had multiple sexual partners
While the risk of HPV infection goes up the more sexual partners you've had, infection only requires close intimate contact with one infected person. And it's not just about penetrative sexual contact but intimate contact, including various types of heavy petting and oral sex.
MYTH: Once you have HPV, you have it forever
Fortunately, most people will clear it from their system within about two years but about one in 10 people will be left with an infection that continues unabated unless it's treated. Women tend to clear the infection a little easier. The male immune system doesn't seem quite as good at clearing it.
MYTH: Only women can get cancer from HPV
Both men and women can develop HPV-related cancers. The National Cancer Registry estimates that HPV infection causes up to 420 cancer cases a year: 335 in women, 85 in men.
MYTH: Only women should get vaccinated for HPV
Early research linking HPV with cancer originally associated it with cervical cancer. So it was logical to only vaccinate women. However, researchers have investigated its link to other forms of cancer and it has become increasingly clear that HPV can lead to penile cancer, anal cancer and cancers of the mouth, throat, and larynx. Both genders should be vaccinated, especially if we want to eliminate the virus entirely.
MYTH: Gay women don't need to have smear tests
Any form of sexual contact - heterosexual or homosexual - runs the risk of developing a HPV infection. Indeed, there are some research papers that show that a very small percentage of virgins have also been infected with HPV.
MYTH: Getting the HPV vaccine makes girls more promiscuous
That has been completely debunked. It has no impact on sexual behaviour whatsoever. What the evidence shows is that there are lower rates of unexpected pregnancy and lower rates of sexually-transmitted infection among vaccinated girls. There is also evidence to show that, within a short period of time, girls completely forget they were vaccinated, so it doesn't have an impact on their behaviour. (The HPV vaccine is available free of charge from the HSE for all girls in first year of second-level school.)
MYTH: HPV can be treated with antibiotics
HPV is a virus so it can't be treated with antibiotics. There are no drug-based treatments for HPV at present. The only treatment is prevention, which is very effective and which is why we are so keen on making sure that everybody possible gets vaccinated at the appropriate age before exposure.
In conversation with Katie Byrne