Study signals ‘continued need’ for HPV-awareness campaigns

Lack of understanding of sexually transmitted virus contrasts with danger of prevalence

In Ireland, HPV infection caused up to 420 cancer cases each year between 2010 and 2014, with as many as 130 dying each year from HPV-related cancers. Photograph: Matthew Busch

In Ireland, HPV infection caused up to 420 cancer cases each year between 2010 and 2014, with as many as 130 dying each year from HPV-related cancers. Photograph: Matthew Busch

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More than four in five people believe they are unlikely to have ever had human papillomavirus (HPV), despite the vast majority of sexually active adults contracting the virus at some point in their lives, new research suggests.

The survey, which examined awareness of HPV among 1,000 people, also found that almost half of respondents were not aware HPV can cause related cancers, such as anal or cervical cancer.

HPV is a common sexually transmitted disease, with about 80 per cent of the population contracting the virus at some point in their life, according to the Health Service Executive. 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 each year from HPV-related cancers.

Despite this, some 54 per cent of people believe the prevalence of HPV in Ireland is either “extremely rare” or “quite rare”, while only 19 per cent understood that they are likely to have had HPV at some point in their life.

Vaccine uptake

The survey, carried out by polling firm Behaviour and Attitudes on behalf of pharmaceutical company MSD Ireland, which produces HPV vaccine Gardasil, found that 28 per cent of people did not know how HPV was transmitted and that 53 per cent of people didn’t know HPV infection could cause genital warts in men and women.

Dr Robert O’Connor, director of research at the Irish Cancer Society, said the findings demonstrated the “continued need” for HPV-awareness campaigns.

Liz Yeates, chief executive of the Marie Keating Foundation, said it was “without a doubt” that a high uptake of the HPV vaccine, and the availability of cervical screening could reduce the number of HPV-related deaths in Ireland.

School jabs

The survey was carried out in advance of this autumn’s national immunisation programme, which sees the vaccine made freely available to boys and girls in their first year of secondary school.

School vaccine programmes, which include the HPV vaccine, were paused due to school closures in March. However, since July, school immunisation teams have invited students to HSE clinics across the country to avail of any missed vaccines they were due.

A spokeswoman for the HSE said figures were not available for the number of children who received the HPV jab this year, but that its schools teams “are indicating a high uptake”.She added that the HSE was planning for immunisation programmes to continue even if schools were closed in order to cause as little disruption as possible.