Genital human papillomavirus infections: knowledge, perception of risk, and actual risk in a nonclinic population of young women

J Womens Health. 1997 Feb;6(1):113-21. doi: 10.1089/jwh.1997.6.113.


The purpose of this study was to assess knowledge, beliefs, and attitudes about genital human papillomavirus (HPV) infections in a group of young women in a nonclinic setting and to examine the association between perception of risk and actual risk. One hundred ten women attending a state university participated in the study and were asked to complete a self-administered questionnaire about knowledge and perceptions of risk. They were then offered testing for the virus using a self-administered vaginal method. The mean age was 20 +/- 1.2 years. Ninety (82%) were sexually experienced (SE), with a mean number of lifetime partners of 5.1 +/- 4.3. The mean knowledge score was less than the 68th percentile, reflecting low levels of knowledge about genital HPV infections. The SE group had a higher knowledge score than the sexually inexperienced (p < .02), but there were no differences in knowledge between those who chose to be tested and those who refused testing. The majority of women attributed negative emotion to being hypothetically tested positive for HPV. Emotions selected by > 50% of the group included feeling scared, angry, guilty, anxious, confused, dirty, regretful, and panicky. A greater negative emotion score was associated with refusing HPV testing (p < .002). Of the SE women, 58% (51) perceived themselves at risk, and, of this group, 71% (36) agreed to be tested. Of the women who agreed to HPV testing, 36% who perceived themselves at risk and 35% who did not perceive themselves at risk were, in fact, positive for HPV (p = ns). The majority of women have little knowledge of HPV infections and have attributed many negative emotions associated with infectivity. These negative attributes appear to influence women's decision making concerning HPV testing. The risk of HPV infection in this nonclinic group was substantial, suggesting that even in a nonclinic group, the prevalence of HPV is quite high. Perception of risk was unrelated to actual risk (HPV positive test), reflecting the lack of self-identified risk.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Female
  • Genital Diseases, Female / prevention & control*
  • Health Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice*
  • Humans
  • Papillomaviridae*
  • Papillomavirus Infections / prevention & control*
  • Papillomavirus Infections / transmission
  • Prevalence
  • Risk Factors
  • San Francisco
  • Students / psychology*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Tumor Virus Infections / prevention & control*
  • Tumor Virus Infections / transmission
  • Universities