Sexually active college women infected with the human papilloma virus (HPV) are aware of their risk of developing cervical cancer and many support HPV vaccination, according to new research.
HPV infection is considered one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases and the leading cause for cervical cancer, especially among college-age women (20-24 years old).
To understand the protective behaviors of women regarding HPV and cervical cancer, researchers interviewed 1,105 unmarried, sexually active college women from 18 to 26 years old. Interviews were carried out for two weeks using online questionnaires at two large universities in Texas.
The questionnaires included questions on personal characteristics; HPV and vaccination status of both the participant and her family; HPV-related knowledge; perceptions related to vaccination; mandate support (in their opinion, whether the HPV vaccine should be mandated or not); use of healthcare and screening services; and sexual behaviors.
Researchers then compared these parameters with the participants’ perceived risk of having cervical cancer in the next five years.
The analysis indicated that 77 percent of the participants had not been told they had HPV, and that 75.1 percent perceived themselves to be at “low” or “very low” risk of developing cervical cancer in the next five years. About 80 percent of the study’s participants reported their last sexual intercourse to be safe, and 68.4 percent said they received a Pap test every year.
In the group of women that had not been diagnosed with HPV at the beginning of the study, those who had more lifetime sex partners; unprotected sex during last time they had intercourse; a Pap test in the past year; and perceived themselves to be at higher risk for cervical cancer were significantly more likely to be diagnosed with HPV.
Participants with no insurance, diagnosed with HPV, or who had a family member or friend with cervical cancer were more likely to perceive themselves at risk for developing cervical cancer in the next five years.
Also, women with HPV were more likely to support HPV vaccination mandates and had fewer friends who were vaccinated.
“Women who reported having fewer friends receiving the HPV vaccine were more likely to be diagnosed with HPV,” the researchers wrote. “Social relationships have been well documented as influencing health behaviors and could be one possible explanation for this finding.”
Importantly, women diagnosed with HPV were more likely to have a Pap test in the last year, demonstrating that they know about the association between HPV, abnormal Pap tests and cervical cancer. Also, the link between a lack of insurance and perceived risk of cervical cancer may be due to “less screening behaviors or delayed and postponed screenings due to cost.”
The authors concluded that “women with HPV, despite engaging in risky sexual behaviors, acknowledge their cervical cancer risk and may be strong advocates for HPV vaccination mandates to protect youth against this preventable virus.”