To mark International HPV Awareness Day, we chatted with Rebecca Jopson, a Therapeutic Radiographer at the Rosemere Cancer Centre, and who sits on the board of the HPV Alliance, to find out more about Human Papillomavirus.
- Rebecca, you are a Therapeutic Radiographer and work at the Rosemere Cancer Centre at RPH can you tell us more about your role?
As a therapeutic radiographer my role involves the planning and delivery of radiotherapy treatment which is the treatment of cancer and other related diseases using radiation. I work as part of a great team and patient care plays a huge role in what we do. Together we support patients through their treatment from beginning, through to follow up.
- For the past two years, alongside your day to day role, you have been working to promote a greater awareness of HPV – can you explain what HPV is and why you are raising awareness?
HPV (Human Papillomavirus) is a really common virus with over 200 strains, the severity of which can be anything from mild (such as skin warts and verruca’s) to severe, which are the types which can lead to the development of certain cancers.
The first time I really understood the link between HPV and cancer was during my training at University. The vaccine wasn’t available to my age group through school like it is now and although I understood that it was to protect against a virus I didn’t really understand what HPV was and I soon realised that a lack of knowledge on the topic was very common.
HPV is responsible for the majority of cervical, oropharyngeal, penile, vaginal, vulval and anal cancers and is transmitted through skin to skin contact. It is labelled as a sexually transmitted disease which creates a stigma around the topic. Eight out of 10 people contract HPV in their lifetime which gives an idea of just how common it is.
The development of cancer occurs often many years after contracting the virus, which is because your immune system is unable to fight off the virus. There are no signs or symptoms until cancer begins to develop, although prevalence of HPV is tested for during a cervical smear test. Contracting HPV is not limited to sexual orientation or the number of partners a person may have had. Meaning that although the probability of contracting the virus increases the more sexual partners a person may have had, there are cases were people have developed a HPV related cancer and had only one sexual partner.
It is important to raise awareness so that those affected by this virus don’t feel embarrassed and know that they have people to talk to. It is also important for prevention so that parents understand the severity of HPV and consider the vaccination for their children.
- You were recently appointed as a board member to represent the UK on the HPV Alliance Network in the United States – how did this come about?
I completed a study for my dissertation which looked at the confidence in health care professionals in providing information to head and neck cancer patients who were HPV positive. While researching I came across HPV Alliance and started to speak with Lillian Kreppel and Marcia Cross (actress from Desperate Housewives) who are the founders, and both survivors of HPV related anal cancer. We realised we have the same mission, to raise awareness, educate and de-stigmatise HPV to prevent cancer and I was asked to join their board, which is fantastic.
- What does your role on the board involve?
The role involves sharing information with various health professionals globally to raise awareness and educate the public as well as health professionals on HPV and the links to various cancers.
- This is a fantastic achievement, can you tell us a bit more about the impact your appointment will have to patient care here at our Trust?
Thank you! What I have realised that HPV is a global issue and collaboration is key to obtaining the most up to date information which is what we want for our patients. This is a developing area of oncology from both a preventative and treatment perspective. Therefore, it is so important to keep up to date with any changes and understand the standard of practice in other countries so that we can compare and ensure we are providing the best care possible for our patients.
- Today is HPV Awareness Day and for those wanting to find out more information – what should they do?
Myself and Lucy Koh (Consultant radiographer in head and neck cancer) and other members of the head and neck multidisciplinary team have worked together to create a Blended Learning package which is now available on the Trust e-learning & Development site to educate on HPV and the links to head and neck cancer. We have also teamed up with the Throat Cancer Foundation to offer their resources to support our patients and to assist our team when providing information on this topic.
Additionally, from 6pm HPV Alliance have a virtual event with various speakers from researchers, medical professionals to celebrities wanting to dispel myths and provide facts on the virus. Go to hpvalliance.org for more information!
We have also created the #YouCanTalkToMeAboutHPV which we want to get trending on social media. We want to direct people to the correct resources for the most accurate information on this topic and stop internet searches which lead to false information and cause our patients a lot of worry. We have support from Liverpool Head and Neck Centre, The Throat Cancer Foundation, The Anal Cancer Foundation and HPV Alliance and are directing patients to speak to their healthcare team for more information on HPV related cancers.
- Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is an extremely common virus.
- There are over 150 strains and not all cause cancer.
- Eight out of 10 people have had a strain of HPV in their lifetime.
- The severity of the virus ranges from mild, for example skin warts and verruca’s, to high risk which can result in the development of cancer.
- Some high-risk strains of HPV are completely asymptomatic and lay dormant within the body which is why they go unnoticed for so long. In many cases, it is not until the infected cells become cancerous that HPV is understood to be the cause.
- In most cases, your immune system has the ability to combat the virus without you ever knowing you had it.
- HPV 16 and 18 are the strains associated with the majority of oropharyngeal, cervical, vaginal, vulva, penile and anal cancers.
- Skin to skin contact is the most common method of transmission. When considering the above anatomical sites most prevalent to cancer development, sexual contact is deemed the most common method of transmission.
- Both females and males, of any sexual orientation can develop HPV. Probability suggests that the more sexual partners a person may have puts them more at risk, although it is understood that a person may have only had one sexual partner and still develop the virus.
- Under the NHS HPV vaccination programme the Gardasil vaccine is used to protect against four types of HPV; 6, 11, 16 and 18.
- The vaccination is available to teenage girls (since 2008) and boys (more recently since 2019) aged 12-13 in school Year 8. The vaccine is given over a course of two doses approximately 6-24 months apart. Both doses are required for full protection.