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HPV and cervical screening - Myths busted!

Monday, September 1, 2014

Feature

September is Cervical Screening Awareness Month. We thought it would be a good time to bust a few myths on cervical screening and the Human Papillomavirus (HPV).

For those of you born after 1990, it is possible you will have had the HPV vaccination at your school or at a clinic.

However, you may have some questions about what it actually means, what it protects you against and how it relates to cancer.

What is HPV?

HPV is a virus which can be passed to another person through unprotected sex and skin to skin contact.

Both men and women can get HPV and some types of the virus can cause genital warts or warts on other parts of the body.

The HPV vaccination will not treat an HPV infection so it is best to get the vaccine before you become sexually active.

HPV is responsible for the majority of cervical cancer cases. Cervical cancer is cancer of the cervix which is at the top of the vagina. If it’s not treated, cervical cancer can be fatal.

The HPV virus causes cells to become abnormal, which can lead to cancer. The best way to spot these abnormal cells is to get regular cervical smears.

What is a cervical smear?

A cervical smear is a check for any abnormal cells on the cervix of a woman. A nurse or doctor will gently take a sample of cells to have checked in the lab.

Smears are generally quick and painless and you can have an STI check at the same time.

What is the HPV vaccination?

The HPV vaccination protects you against four types of the virus that cause genital warts and cervical cancer. This vaccine is free for all women aged under 20 so if you haven’t had the vaccine yet, go for it!

Many of our clinics provide the HPV vaccination. Our nurses and doctors are professional and experienced and are there to help you.

Now to the myths on HPV and cervical screening!

HPV isn’t very common

HPV is actually the most common viral STI in New Zealand. It is thought that up to 80 per cent of people who have sexual intercourse have HPV at some time in their lives.

Once you get HPV you will have it for life

Most HPV infections will go away before they cause any health problems. There are over 100 types of HPV. Most are low-risk and will go away. Some can cause genital warts.

There are a few HPV types that are considered high-risk and may lead to abnormal cell changes in the cervix (the opening of the uterus).

Using condoms completely protects against HPV

Although condoms work well to prevent other STIs, they offer less protection against HPV. HPV can be passed through skin to skin contact, including oral sex.

I’ve had the HPV vaccine, so I don’t need to worry about having cervical smears

You should still have regular smears.. The HPV vaccine does not protect you from all types of HPV virus so it is important to have cervical smears to catch any abnormal cells caused by types not covered in the vaccine. You can have an STI check at the same time.

Only women can get the HPV vaccination

Men can get the HPV vaccine because they can catch the HPV virus. Right now, only girls aged 12 to 20 years are eligible for free HPV vaccinations. Anyone else can get the vaccine from their doctor but it can cost up to $500 for the full three injections.

If you have HPV, you will get cancer

No. There are over 100 types of HPV. Only a few types are considered high-risk and these are the cause of almost all cervical cancers. Even if you have a high-risk type of HPV, this does not mean you have cancer, or will get cancer.

I don’t need a cervical smear until I am older

It is recommended that all women who have ever been sexually active start getting smears at the age of 20 and have one every three years until they are 70.

Cervical cancer only occurs in ‘promiscuous’ women so only they need to get a cervical smear

It doesn’t matter how many or how few sexual experiences you have had. If you have had unprotected sex or sexual contact with someone who has HPV, there is a chance you will have caught the HPV virus.

Any woman can get cervical cancer, even if she has only had sex with one person so getting regular cervical smears is the best way to protect yourself.

Your best protection

Remember that the best protection from HPV and cervical cancer is to:

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