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25 October 2023

Just 12% of women understand use of HPV test in cervical screening

Just 12% of women in the UK understand the role of HPV testing within the cervical screening process.


The poll, conducted by researchers at King’s College London and funded by Cancer Research UK, shows that awareness of the test’s function is low.

HPV (human papillomavirus) is a common virus that can sometimes lead to cancer. Cervical screening in England, Scotland and Wales tests for HPV to prevent cancer from developing – this is called HPV primary testing.

The survey of nearly 2,000 British women showed that:

  • 12% of women could identify how HPV testing is used in cervical screening
  • 14% of women mentioned HPV as a risk factor for cervical cancer, unprompted
  • 23% of those who had heard of HPV were aware that most sexually active people will contract the virus at some point in their lives
  • 19% of women who had heard of HPV, were aware that HPV infection does not develop into cervical cancer very quickly

While positive strides have been made to increase awareness of HPV, our research reveals major gaps in women’s understanding of current approaches to cervical screening. Improving awareness can help to reduce feelings of uncertainty and confusion about screening results. It will also help people understand the reasoning behind any future updates to the screening programme, such as HPV self-sampling and changes to intervals between screening appointments.

Professor Jo Waller, who led the work at the School of Cancer and Pharmaceutical Sciences and is now at Queen Mary University of London

HPV infects the skin and cells lining the inside of the body. Most people, regardless of gender, will have HPV at some point in their lifetime and the infection usually gets better on its own. For every 100 people who attend cervical screening, around 13 people will receive a positive HPV result. If left untreated, these HPV infections can sometimes lead to cancer. This process takes many years.

Cervical screening with HPV primary testing aims to pick up high-risk HPV. If HPV is found, the same sample is checked for cell changes. It can also detect cervical cancer at an early stage when treatment is more likely to be successful. There’s no difference to the screening appointment itself, but the cell sample is analysed for HPV first when it gets to the lab. Everyone who takes part in cervical screening gets an HPV result.

Cervical screening with HPV primary testing: a breakdown of the results

No HPV found

HPV found with no cell changes

HPV found with cell changes

This means you don't have high-risk HPV. You will be invited back for cervical screening in 3 or 5 years' time depending on your age and where you live. This means you have high-risk HPV, but you do not have changes to your cervical cells. You will be invited for cervical screening sooner to check that the HPV has gone. This is usually after a year. This means you have high-risk HPV and cervical cell changes. You will be invited for further tests.



The survey also found a correlation between cervical screening attendance and an understanding of HPV. Researchers of the study say this could show the impact of sharing health information during appointments and that more work is needed to reach people who aren't engaging with screening at all.

The cervical screening programme is estimated to save at least 2,000 lives from cervical cancer every year in the UK and this number is likely to increase thanks to HPV testing. Everyone should have equal access to screening, but barriers to participation can often lead to inequalities in diagnosis and treatment. If we’re to eliminate these inequalities, we need more research like this.

Cancer Research UK’s head of health and patient information, Dr Julie Sharp

She added: “This study gives an opportunity to build on the public’s understanding of how HPV testing and screening can prevent cervical cancer and stop the disease in its tracks.

“It’s vital that the UK Government continues to work with individuals, communities and services to ensure that accurate information about HPV reaches those who need it.”