28 Sept 2022

'Extremely common' - Do you know what HPV is and that it can cause cancer?

'Extremely common' - Do you know what HPV is and that it can cause cancer?

'Extremely common' - Do you know what HPV is and that it can cause cancer?

New research has shown that around 7 in 10 people (72%) do not fully understand HPV (Human Papillomavirus), with only 4% of those surveyed correctly identifying HPV as extremely common in Ireland.

The new research launched this week was carried out by Behaviour and Attitudes on behalf of MSD Ireland polling a representative sample of over 1,000 people in Ireland to examine awareness and perceptions of HPV.

The survey was conducted ahead of this autumn’s National HPV Immunisation Programme in Ireland, which is offered to first-year boys and girls.

Even though most people will be infected with a form of HPV in their lifetime, the new research shows that over half (53%) believe that HPV is rare in Ireland.

Year on year, the general public’s awareness of HPV highlights the need for information campaigns. A similar survey conducted in 2018 showed 87% of those surveyed said it was unlikely or impossible they have had or ever had HPV, in 2021 this figure stands at 78%. Only 1 in 5 people (22%) are aware that it is quite likely, very likely, or they know for sure that they themselves have contracted HPV in their lifetime.

While the new figures represent gradual growth in the understanding and prevalence of HPV year-on-year, increased awareness and education is still required among the general population. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently launched a global initiative aimed at eliminating cervical cancer by 2030 by focussing on prevention through HPV vaccination and screening and treatment of pre-cancerous lesions. Greater awareness of HPV and its prevalence in Ireland are key, the Irish Cancer Society says.

The research was carried out ahead of this year’s HPV Aware campaign launched by MSD Ireland and supported by the Irish Cancer Society, the Marie Keating Foundation and CERVIVA. The campaign takes place every year ahead of parents nationwide receiving letters and information packs from the HSE, informing them of HPV and the schools’ immunisation programme.

Speaking about the new findings, Rachel Morrogh, Irish Cancer Society Director of Advocacy, said: “It highlights that there is no room for complacency when it comes to people’s understanding of HPV and the cancers it can cause. Through amazing scientific breakthroughs and research, we are incredibly fortunate to have a vaccine that can prevent many HPV-related cancers and this is available, free of charge, to first year girls and boys each September.

"The Irish Cancer Society encourages all eligible boys and girls, and their families to become familiar with what HPV is, the cancers HPV can cause, the benefits of this vaccination and to seek out trusted information sources ahead of the vaccination roll-out in schools this month.

"We have it within our grasp to save more than 130 lives each year in Ireland. High vaccination rates is one essential aspect of eliminating HPV-related cancers and we must continue to work together and commit to a detailed roadmap that accelerates progress in eliminating these cancers in Ireland. With a target-based plan, Ireland can lead like other countries across the world in eliminating HPV-related cancers and diseases.”

In Ireland, HPV infection caused up to 420 cancer cases in men and women each year between 2010 and 2014, with as many as 130 people dying in Ireland each year from HPV related cancers.

There are more than 100 different types of HPV, and most HPV infections have no symptoms and clear naturally. When HPV infection doesn’t clear naturally, it becomes a problem as it could lead to certain HPV-related cancers in both men and women, such as anal cancer in men and cervical and anal cancers in women.  

Building on the important role of public awareness campaigns, Bernie Carter, Assistant Director of Nursing Services from the Marie Keating Foundation said: “Cervical cancer, which is predominantly caused by HPV, is a cancer that can be eliminated. The World Health Organisation’s drive to eliminate HPV-related cancers through a three pillar approach which includes prevention, screening and cancer management could reduce more than 40% of new cases of the disease and 5 million related deaths by 2050.

"No one intervention alone will be enough. According to the WHO 2020–2030 strategy, HPV-related cancers can be eliminated by countries who achieve 90% HPV vaccination coverage, 70% screening coverage, and 90% access to treatment for cervical pre-cancer and cancer, including access to palliative care. Cervical cancer is a preventable disease. It is also curable if detected early and adequately treated. Building awareness and supporting a return to access to healthcare and to routine HPV vaccinations can help support the WHO’s ambitions to eradicate a cancer, let alone the fourth most common cancer among women globally.”

CERVIVA spokesperson, Dr Cara Martin, assistant Professor in Molecular Pathology, Trinity College Dublin: “Our clinical research group continues to develop and expand emerging research topics of interest to cancer screening and HPV associated diseases in Ireland. Whilst we have cervical screening for the early detection of changes in the cervix, there is no screening for other HPV-related cancers. The best chance we have of eliminating these cancers is to prevent the primary infection through vaccination. We would strongly encourage parents to get the facts and be HPV aware.” 

Dr Phil Kieran, GP, “The COVID-19 outbreak has highlighted the significant contribution preventative health measures can have in stopping us from becoming ill with certain illnesses and diseases. The latest research shows that a large number of people still don’t fully understand HPV, and this is something that doctors and pharmacists can easily address with parents, providing them with factual information and advice for their son or daughter.

"With children going back to school, first year parents will now receive consent forms relating to the vaccination of their children. As a doctor, a huge part of my role is to ensure the public receives clear and trustworthy information to allow them to better manage their health on a day to day basis. Talk to your Doctor about HPV and how it can impact your son or daughter, or just to find out more and grow your own knowledge of HPV.”


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