Do you know what the human papilloma virus (HPV) is? Do you know it can cause cancers? In men as well as women? Do you think you will contract HPV in your lifetime?
These were among the questions Europeans were asked in a new 10-country survey of 15,000 people. The results were startling. While most people have heard of HPV, only half associate it with cancer.
And, although it is a very common virus among men and women, around half of respondents think it is impossible or unlikely that they have been infected with HPV. Just 17% believe both males and females are equally at risk of contracting the virus.
Of those who had heard of HPV only 3% knew that most people will contract HPV in their lifetime.
In fact, the virus is very common: 75% of the population will be infected in their lifetime
The research was undertaken by Ipsos, the global market research firm, on behalf of MSD, a vaccine manufacturer. It aimed to gauge awareness of HPV in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland and the UK.
Helen Cox, Senior Director, Ipsos Healthcare, said the new survey provides robust benchmarks of levels of awareness and knowledge of HPV across the 10 European countries and an understanding of how this differs between these countries.
Nearly all cervical cancers (99.7%) are caused by infection with a high-risk type of HPV. It is the fourth-most frequent cancer in women and has a high mortality rate globally, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). In addition, HPV infections are responsible for a range of non-cervical diseases in both men and women, causing serious illness and putting pressure on health services.
Who knows what?
There is mixed awareness of HPV across Europe. Females (72%) are more clued in than men (53%), with women in the 26-45 age group showing slightly higher levels of awareness (75%) than any other group. Across both genders, so-called ‘millennials’ – people aged 24-39 who came of age around the turn of the century – had higher HPV awareness than other generations (66%).
Respondents in Spain (87%), Italy (82%) and Portugal (70%) were most aware, while Switzerland (48%), Austria (46%) and Germany (40%) were bottom of the league. The same trend was seen when participants were asked whether HPV is linked to cancer – most people in Spain, Italy and Portugal knew that it did; most in Switzerland, Austria and Germany did not.
People in Switzerland, Germany and Austria – where the HPV vaccine is offered for free to boys and girls – either did not know of HPV or thought it was only a risk for females.
The vaccine has been hailed as having the potential to eliminate HPV in some countries but has also been the subject of false online rumours which have led to a dip in vaccination rates in, for example, Japan, Denmark and Ireland.
Improving awareness of the prevalence of HPV and its link to cancer is seen as a vital step in cancer prevention through cervical screening and HPV vaccination.
‘This survey clearly shows the disparity in knowledge about HPV amongst citizens across Europe,’ said Dr Xavier Bosch, Catalonia Institute of Oncology. ‘Knowledge is an essential step to understand why prevention is of importance and to guide decisions in the vaccination and screening practices of the individuals and families.’
He said scientific and public health communities need to do more to build understanding if Europe is to reduce the impact of cervical and other HPV-related cancers in the coming decades.