According to research released a couple of weeks ago by the medical insurer, Bupa, young Aussies are fumbling in the dark when it comes to their sexual health.
The survey revealed a staggering one in ten men believe the contraceptive pill protects women against sexually transmitted infections (STIs) such as gonorrhoea and chlamydia, and almost half of all respondents thought a Pap test also checked for STIs.
In both cases, they were wrong.
The respondents consisted of over one thousand 18-35 year olds, who arguably should know better when it comes to STIs, the pill and Pap tests. One can probably assume this age group is fairly active when it comes to sexual relationships, so these issues should be pretty high on their priority list.
I'm not going to hypothesise on why this lack of knowledge might be the case, or start pointing the finger at our education institutions, health service providers, pop culture or parents, but I will take the opportunity to alleviate a few common misconceptions about Pap tests.
To be fair to half the survey's respondents, they weren't completely off the mark when linking Pap tests to STIs. A Pap test checks for abnormalities to cells on the cervix, which are almost always caused by HPV infection, the ‘common cold' of STIs.
Four out of five of us will have HPV at some point in our lives (usually without ever knowing it), and in most cases the infection will clear naturally from our bodies within 12-18 months. When this doesn't happen, abnormalities can develop on the cells, and if left untreated, can eventually lead to cervical cancer.
So how can women prevent this from happening? Unlike gonorrhoea and chlamydia, condoms don't actually protect against HPV. That's why women are advised to have a Pap test every two years. Nine out of 10 Australian women who are diagnosed with cervical cancer have either never had a Pap test or do not screen regularly. In fact, only two thirds of eligible women are adhering to our national guidelines which state that every woman aged 18-70 who has ever been sexually active should have a Pap test every two years, or after her first sexual encounter, whichever is later. It's estimated that cervical screening saves over 1200 Australian women each year.
To make things even better, 2007 saw the launch of the HPV vaccine. It protects against the four types of HPV that causes 70 per cent of cervical cancers and 90 per cent of genital warts. Victoria has already seen a 50 per cent reduction in the number of high-grade cervical abnormalities in young women. Of course, as the HPV vaccine doesn't protect against all types of HPV that can cause cervical cancer, it is still imperative that women continue having regular Pap tests to ensure best possible protection against the disease.
Hopefully this at least helps clear up some of the confusion around cervical screening. If you want any more information you can visit www.papscreen.org.au or call the Cancer Council Helpline on 13 11 20.
Read our blog participation guidelines and join the discussion. (Please note: Your first name will appear with your comment, but your surname and email address will not be shown.)