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As a woman are you fully aware about Cervical Cancer and HPV?

For the last two months I have been reading up a lot about HPV (The Human Papillomavirus). Having been sent a letter for my routine smear test I came across a leaflet that was also inside the envelope. I never really knew about HPV until then, not because of ignorance, but due to the fact that in my life I had never had any information about it. Whilst attending my local sexual health clinics years ago, it was never brought to my attention mainly because you were never tested for it as part of the routine tests like Chlamydia, Gonorrhoea, Syphilis, Trichomoniasis, Hepatitis B and HIV etc.

As I read this leaflet, it actually made me want to refrain myself from any sexual activity again. I was convinced that the only way to protect myself from any infection or virus was to keep my legs closed for the rest of my life. Not only do us women have to worry about preventing pregnancy, catching STI’s, getting thrush, having Bacterial Vaginosis, getting Cervical Cancer. We also have to worry about breast cancer, HPV and every other illness that is lurking out there. I kept asking myself ,why are the NHS trying to scare me now? If I've had HPV at some point in my life without knowing it and my smear tests have always been fine, why do I need to know about it now? But then I read on.

After asking a few of my friends and work colleagues if they had ever heard of HPV, only two people out five had ever heard of it. So why is it that people have not been educated thoroughly enough to understand this common virus that only gets detected with cervical smear tests? When I rang up my doctor’s surgery to ask why I was only being tested for HPV at this point in my life and not in my sexually active years, I was told HPV Primary screening only started from early 2013 and was being aimed at women over 30 in only certain areas. It’s a new screening programme which at some point will be put in place across the whole of England. Back in the days, if your smear test came back with abnormal cells, you’d then be given a HPV test only after your sample had been checked. Now they are using very advance technology to detect any issues at an earlier stage.

The information I am about to give you has been taken off my leaflet and the NHS website.

So what is HPV? For those of you who may not be aware of it, it is a very common STI. Most women get it at some point in their lives. Whilst there are many types of HPV, most of them clear up themselves without causing problems. However some types can cause cells in the cervix to change and become abnormal. These abnormal changes can, if untreated go on to cervical cancer. This is why it is very important that you have your smear test when requested. Don’t let fear prevent you from saving your life. As much as many of you are scared to have your smear test, think about how not having one could change your life. Whether or not your results don't come back showing what you had hoped for, at least you can tackle it head on. Why wait until it's too late? I am not willing take that risk. I have two beautiful boys who need me alive.

There are more than 100 different types of HPV, many of which are harmless. However, some types of HPV can disrupt the normal functioning of the cells of the cervix and can eventually trigger the onset of cancer. Infection with some types of HPV can cause genital warts, which is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the UK. Other types of HPV infection can cause minor problems, such as common skin warts and verruca’s.

Two strains of the HPV virus called HPV 16 and HPV 18 are known to be responsible for 70% of all cases of cervical cancer. These types of HPV infection have no symptoms, so many women will not realise they have the infection. However, it is important to be aware that these infections are relatively common and most women who have them don't develop cervical cancer.

Using condoms during sex offers some protection against HPV, but it cannot always prevent infection as it is skin to skin contact anywhere in the genital area. It can easily be passed on during intimate sexual contact between partners; men and women and between partners of the same sex. The virus has no symptoms. This means that you or a partner may have had HPV for many months or years without knowing it.

What I find very strange, is that men do not get tested for HPV, which means they could be carrying the virus and not know. So if your boyfriend for instance had a sexual health check and it came back clear, it doesn’t mean he isn’t carrying the HPV virus from a past partner. I have also read online that women have accused their men of cheating on them after their HPV screening test, when in fact it was them who had the HPV lying dormant for months.

The question you must be asking right now is, is their treatment for HPV? My answer to that is no. There is no treatment to get rid of the virus. For most women, their immune system will get rid of it just like getting rid of a cold. But the NHS can treat abnormal cervical cells, especially if they are found early on. Most types of cervical cancer take a long time to develop. Treating abnormal cells early on means that cervical cancer can be prevented. Having said that, I am very confused with the fact that in the UK, girls aged between 11 and 14 are offered the Gardasil HPV vaccine. If there is a vaccine to prevent HPV, why isn’t there one to treat it? The Gardasil HPV vaccine protects against genital warts as well as cervical cancer. Girls have 2 injections of the vaccine. The second injection is usually a year after the first but it can be any time between 6 to 24 months later. A letter about the vaccine and a consent form is sent to the parents of the girl before she has the vaccine. It is up to her whether she has the vaccine. If girls take up the vaccination at school, the programme will prevent at least 7 out of 10 cancers of the cervix (70%) and possibly even more in the future. But it takes between 10 and 20 years for a cancer to develop after HPV infection. So any benefits in reducing cervical cancer won’t be seen for quite a long time. But the number of cases of pre-cancerous changes in the cervix (CIN) will fall quite rapidly.

The thing I cannot comprehend is why on earth would an 11 or 14 year old need a HPV injection? At this point in their lives, they should be studying their school books, not going to all kinds of lengths to prevent genital warts. Why encourage sexual activity at such a young age? If they think they are protected in a way, they may just go out and be promiscuous.

HPV screening has three main types of results. No HPV found (negative) which means no further tests will be carried out. You will be called back again for another test in three years’ time.

With HPV found (HPV Positive) you will also be tested for abnormal cells. If none are found, your result will say you have HPV, but no abnormal cells. You will then be asked to go back for screening in twelve months’ time to check that the HPV has cleared by your immune system. If it hasn’t cleared, you may be at greater risk of developing abnormal cervical cells.

With HPV found (HPV Positive) and abnormal cells found, you will then be referred for a colposcopy. This is a closer examination of the cervix and it will then be decided what steps to take next.

Sometimes it’s possible to have an ‘inadequate’ result. This when the lab cannot get an HPV test result from your sample, or see if abnormal cells are present. You will then be asked to return for another screening in three months’ time.

HPV screening should benefit women because more abnormal cells will be picked up and women without HPV can be reassured that they are at extremely low risk of developing cervical cancer.

It's possible for women of all ages to develop cervical cancer, although the condition mainly affects sexually active women between the ages of 30 and 45. The condition is very rare in women under 25 that is why all women aged between 25 and 64 are invited for cervical screening. Women aged between 25 and 49 are invited for testing every three years, and women aged between 50 and 64 are invited every five years.

So if you have had multiple partners in the past, please make sure that you are wise and take the right steps in order to protect yourself from any future form of virus. Life is too precious to be sitting around worrying especially if you know you haven’t been careful. There is more to sex and the enjoyment of it and I’ve realised that as much as you may think you are careful, there’s nothing better than being extra careful. Be safe!

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