Raising public awareness of HPV induced malignancy

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Published: 11 Jan 2011
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Prof Clare Wilkinson - Cardiff University, UK
It is known that human papillomavirus (HPV) is a causal factor for cervical cancer, but less well known that the virus also causes oropharyngeal, anal, vulvar, vaginal and penile cancers, making it the second biggest contributory factor for cancers. Cancer Research UK has funded Prof Wilkinson’s group to deliver a HPV core messages project. This project aims to educate women taking a cervical smear test and girls being vaccinating of the dangers of this virus in an honest way without causing undue levels of anxiety.

NCRI Cancer Conference 2010, 7 November 2010, Liverpool

Professor Clare Wilkinson – Cardiff University, UK

Raising public awareness of HPV induced malignancy

Well I was organising and hosting a session on HPV induced malignancy and my particular interest in that is how we communicate with people about HPV, as that has now become a major...  it’s recognised now that it’s a causal factor and necessary factor for cervical cancer. But it isn’t just cervical cancer that HPV is causal in, it’s actually oropharyngeal cancers, anal cancers, vulvar and vaginal cancers and penile cancers. So it is now considered to be the second biggest risk factor for cancer that we know about.

What can be done to raise awareness of this issue?

We’ve actually been funded by Cancer Research UK to do a project called the HPV Core Messages Project, and that project is all about trying to explain this very complicated business of HPV to our patients, to the women who have the test, at the time when they have their cervical smear test, and to the girls at the moment who are being vaccinated in the UK. So it’s a very complex area of science; it’s very difficult for us doctors to understand it, never mind the people, so when we make a list of the messages that are available there are about 100 different messages and they’re quite complex and some things we still just simply don’t know about HPV. So to put this concept across of a virus causing a cancer to the people is a difficult business. So what we’re trying to do is, through a series of empirical research including systematic reviews, qualitative interviews and nationwide surveys, we’ll be coming up with a set of messages that are suitable for the people. And the idea is that they shouldn’t just be honest and scientific and open and encourage disease control by encouraging people to go and have either the vaccine or the test as triage, they should also not cause too much anxiety, and they should also allow people to make an informed choice about having the vaccine or having the test in triage.

What are the key messages of this campaign?

One of the very simplest messages is that HPV is common, so by the time most people have become sexually active they will have been exposed to the HPV virus. It’s ubiquitous, we live with it, type 16 and 18 are the high risk types but there is a whole range of other types. Most people clear the virus, fight it off, without ever developing any problem from it. So one of the biggest messages we must give the people is if you have an HPV positive test it doesn’t mean that you have cancer, it doesn’t mean that you have a nasty sexually transmitted disease which has all the implications that go with sexually transmitted diseases; that’s the way that people react to knowing that they’re positive and we must combat that beforehand before people get their positive test result.