Condoms can significantly reduce the risk of women being exposed to the virus linked to cervical cancer, a leading charity said today.
Tenovus, the Welsh cancer charity, said that condom use during sex can reduce the risk of exposure to the human papilloma virus (HPV) by as much as 70%.
HPV is a sexually transmitted infection that is known to cause cervical cancer – it is so widespread in the population that some experts say it is almost inevitable that sexually active women will contract it.
There are more than 100 types of HPV, and although most are comparatively harmless, there are a number that are commonly linked to the development of cervical cancer.
Simon Morgan-Jones, Tenovus’s oncology nurse specialist and the charity’s health education officer said, “Using condoms during sex does not offer 100% protection against HPV transmission as there may be other forms of genital contact during the sex act.
“However, condom use does significantly reduce a woman’s risk of contracting the virus.”
A vaccine to prevent HPV infection has now been licensed for use within the European Union and it is likely a second vaccine will also gain its licence in the near future.
Gardasil, the vaccine produced by Merck and Sanofi Pasteur, provides protection against four strains of HPV – HPV-6, HPV-11, HPV-16 and HPV-18.
HPV strains 16 and 18 are responsible for about 70% of all cervical cancers, while strains 6 and 11 are responsible for about 90% of cases of genital warts.
Cervarix, from GlaxoSmithKline protects against infection from HPV types 16 and 18.
In clinical trials, it was the first to demonstrate 100% protection against persistent infection with both HPV 16 and HPV 18, and protection from related pre-cancerous lesions.
But, as yet, there has been no decision on whether there will be a nationwide vaccination programme, which could drastically reduce the number of women who develop cervical cancer every year.
Further studies are continuing to decide the best age for vaccination, although it has been suggested that girls as young as 12 should be vaccinated.
Tenovus said that, in the meantime, it has been shown that good sexual health education can help women reduce their risk of infection with HPV and subsequent risk of developing cervical cancer.
The charity is urging women to take a lead in their ongoing sex education, including learning how to negotiate safe sex in a relationship and how to use condoms effectively.
Such education should also include the aim of reducing the number of sexual partners and avoiding starting sexual relationships at a young age.
Mr Morgan-Jones said, “Despite some people’s fears and prejudices, it would be wrong to suggest that women who develop cervical cancer have been promiscuous.
“A woman may have unprotected sex with only one man, but if he has had many sexual partners, she is potentially exposing herself to the infections of many other people.
“Sex with many different partners is not necessarily wrong, but it does mean that you have an increased risk of being exposed to the HPV virus.
“Sex, particularly unprotected sex, at a younger age is not advocated because the cells lining the cervix do not fully mature until the late teenage years and are more likely to become damaged. Safe sex is about respecting your body and thinking about your future. You can only do this if you take charge of your own sex life”
The Tenovus Freephone Cancer Helpline on 0808 808 1010 can help with any questions about cervical cancer, or visit www.tenovus.com, which has an “ask the nurse” service.
Madeleine Brindley, Western Mail