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HPV on the curriculum

23 September 2021

30% of people have never heard of HPV and 40% have a poor understanding of it, according to a YouGov poll. Yet Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) is incredibly common – 80% of people will get it at some point.

To mark Sexual Health Week 2021, the Sex Education Forum hosted a webinar about HPV, in partnership with The Eve Appeal. HPV is bound to be mentioned at secondary school as there is a national vaccination programme which is offered to all 12 and 13 year olds. However, our quick poll with delegates attending our webinar found that many schools are not mentioning HPV within their RSHE lessons. Perhaps unsurprising given that the average time spent learning about STIs seems to be about one hour. 

STIs are part of the mandatory RSE curriculum for secondary schools in England. The Department for Education has produced an online training module on ‘sexual health’, which includes the advice to: 

•    Teach there are different STIs and explain that they can be transmitted through mucous membranes / body fluids (blood, saliva, vaginal mucus, anal mucus).
•    Explain which parts of body have mucous membrane (mouth, anus, vagina, tip of penis).
•    Ensure pupils understand that transmission of an STI can happen during different types of sexual activity (including oral sex). 

When teaching about STIs it is useful for pupils to understand the range and diversity of STIs (e.g. viruses, bacteria, parasites), and that HPV stands out because it is transmitted by genital skin to skin contact. It is also useful to learn that no sexual activity is risk free - but some activities have a higher risk than others. Emphasis on condom use for safer sex is very important, however condom use doesn’t provide full protection from HPV transmission.

It is important for pupils to know that there is testing and treatment available for STIs and how to access this, and also that not all STIs can be cured. Images of untreated STIs or those at an advanced stage are not helpful. ‘Scare tactics’ are not effective and STIs often have no symptoms. However it is useful to explain that the majority of cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV. The Health Education curriculum provides a further opportunity to mention cervical screening as part of 'Health and Prevention'.  

As well as teaching accurate facts, addressing stigma is a really important outcome from lessons about STIs. This was articulated so clearly by our guest speakers during the webinar: 

Karen Hobbs, Cervical cancer survivor and Information Officer for Ask Eve said: 
“Due to our society’s difficulty in discussing subjects related to sex, there are countless myths surrounding HPV, and the sooner these myths are busted, the better. Having HPV is nothing to be ashamed of, yet I speak to so many people who feel embarrassed and confused when they learn that they have this virus. I missed out on having the HPV vaccine when I was at school, and was then diagnosed with an HPV-related cervical cancer at 24. I didn’t know anything about HPV until I was unlucky enough to have a disease caused by HPV18 (one of the strands the vaccine protects against), so I would love to see people learning about the human papillomavirus at a much younger age. “  

Dr Naomi Sutton, Sexual Health Consultant, TV Dr on C4’s Sex Clinic, says:
“Too often I hear the words ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ used in my clinic when describing someone’s sexual health. Using these words promotes stigma and misunderstanding because sexual health has absolutely nothing to do with personal hygiene. In actual fact the vast majority of us will carry viruses which are sexually transmitted, including HPV types and HSV (Herpes Simplex Virus) throughout our adult lives. Most people remain unaware that they have any infections because they don’t always cause symptoms but, it doesn’t mean they are not there. Education is so very important to combat stigma and stop misunderstanding.”  

10 key messages about HPV 

1.    HPV is extremely common. Most people who have had any type of sexual contact will have HPV at some point in their lives.
2.    We can work together as educators to normalise HPV – most people will get it at some point, so focus on the vaccine, cervical screening, knowing symptoms and getting help early.
3.    There are a wider range of cancers linked to HPV – not just cervical – these include anal, vaginal, penile, vulval, mouth and throat. 
4.    Having HPV doesn’t mean that you have done something wrong, that you are dirty, or that your partner has cheated on you. 
5.    Men/boys/people with penises cannot be tested for HPV.
6.    Condoms offer some protection but don’t fully protect against HPV.
7.    If you’ve had the vaccine still need to go for screening. People may have the vaccine and get HPV.
8.    Know more about symptoms like bleeding after sex and get help with symptoms regardless of vaccine or screening status.
9.    There are opportunities in the mandatory RSHE curriculum and wider school health to regularly mention and explain more about HPV to students, parents and carers.
10.    Contact local sexual health services to see if they can visit your school or setting and contribute to RSE and help ensure accurate signposting to local services.

Further information