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Mercedes was so confident her smear test would come back clear that she was chatting to a friend on the phone as she opened the letter. But she was left shocked and confused when, at 24, she read that the cells in her cervix had started to change, caused by a virus called HPV human papillomavirus. Changes to the way smear tests work mean more women in the UK are about to be told they have HPV - but misconceptions around it can put a strain on sex, relationships and mental health.
In rare cases, like Mercedes', it can cause cell mutations that can ultimately develop into cervical cancer. Mercedes had treatment to remove the affected cells and the virus had disappeared within six months.After You Watch This You won't Engage In This Act Anymore - Powerful Inspirational Video
But the fact that she had contracted it made her feel anxious. Is it something that I've done wrong?
It seems she is not alone. A vaccine for HPV has been offered to girls sinceand was made available to boys last year. The virus lives in the skin around the genitals and can be passed on through sex even if it's with a condom and other intimate contact, so - technically - it is an STI. But Kate Sanger, spokeswoman for the Trust, says that its prevalence means it is more comparable to a common cold than other STIs, so should not be viewed in the same way.
She is concerned about how the stigma could affect women now that changes to smear tests will lead to more diagnoses. In the past, smear tests aimed to detect cell changes. But by the summer, all tests in England, Wales and Scotland are expected to screen for HPV first, to work out more accurately - and earlier on - who is at a higher risk of cervical cancer.
If both HPV and cell changes are detected, women will be asked to have further tests. But if HPV is found without any cell changes, they will be asked to come back a year later for a second smear to check the virus has gone. Nicole Davidson, 26, from Suffolk, was told she had cervical cancer after her first smear test in She already had two children, and chose to have a hysterectomy as treatment. Finding out that it was caused by HPV was an added stress.
She had been with her partner for around five years, but began to question her sexual history and ended up taking anti-depressants. I know it sounds really silly, but it makes you feel like if I'd never had sex, I'd never have got cervical cancer," she says. Both men and women can contract HPV, but most men aren't aware because there is no test for them. Ms Sanger urges people not to panic if they are diagnosed - and stresses that while HPV is common, smear tests mean that cervical cancer is rare, with around 3, cases diagnosed in the UK every year.
The HPV vaccination programme for girls was relatively new when Nicole was at secondary school, and her mother did not get her vaccinated - a decision she says she will not repeat with her own children. Now, almost two years on from her diagnosis and with much more knowledge about HPV, she says she is in a better place.
Unlike Nicole, Mercedes was in the early stages of a relationship when she was diagnosed. For her, feeling better was a question of learning about the prevalence of the virus and how easily it can be passed on. Four years after opening the letter, and engaged to the man she was dating at the time, she wants other women to be more aware.
Call for HPV vaccine to be offered to older boys. Boys' HPV vaccine 'to stop thousands of cancers'. Having HPV 'isn't rude or shameful'. Vaccine linked to huge cervical disease drop. Busting the myths around sex virus HPV. Would you know if you had HPV? Busting the myths around HPV Vaccine linked to huge cervical disease drop.
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