Are HPV cancer prevention messages reaching their target audiences?

Hand holding child's hand

HPV vaccination is recommended to children at age 11–12 and as early as age 9 and through age 26.

As most of you are probably unaware, January has been designated National Cervical Health Awareness Month. Had I not been a member of the St. Jude HPV Cancer Prevention Program Task Force, I, too, would be out of the loop on this one. Granted, I rarely watch television, and actively avoid the news, so maybe I’ve missed the hoopla. However, a quick search on the font of all knowledge (i.e., Google) suggests that this awareness month has been flying under the radar. 

The mentions I found about Cervical Health Awareness Month were from health-related organizations and advocacy groups—not from major news outlets or from anyone in a position to be an “influencer.”  I didn’t see much on Facebook, and the mentions tended to be from gynecology groups advocating screening, not primary prevention with the HPV vaccine. 

I did find this press release: “Tennessee Department of Health Recognizes Cervical Cancer Awareness Month,” which includes the sobering statistics for our state—that every day someone in Tennessee is diagnosed with cervical cancer. Someone dies in our state with the disease every three days. 

Did you notice the difference in the names for the awareness campaign?  What used to be Cervical Cancer Awareness is now Cervical Health Awareness. I really like that change. We need to focus on keeping people healthy, and in this case, we have the means to do that—a vaccine that has been proven to decrease the incidence of cervical cancer. 

The more-inclusive language of Cervical Health Awareness also reflects the fact that HPV is associated with significant morbidity in individuals who never develop cancer. In my conversations about the HPV vaccine, most people do not know someone who has been diagnosed with cervical cancer, but most women know someone who has had an abnormal Pap smear. Some women with abnormal Pap smears develop cervical intraepithelial neoplasia requiring biopsies and potential other invasive procedures. The HPV vaccine can prevent these cervical pre-cancerous changes.

In the years since the HPV vaccine was licensed, numerous publications from around the world have demonstrated that the HPV vaccine can prevent infections and cervical intraepithelial neoplasia caused by HPV strains included in the vaccine. Since it takes many years after HPV infection for cervical cancer to develop, only recently have researchers been able to demonstrate that the HPV vaccine significantly reduces the incidence of cervical cancer, particularly when given in preadolescence. 

In the December 4, 2021, issue of the British medical journal Lancet (published online November 3, 2021), Falcaro et al reported 87% and 97% decreases in cervical cancer and grade 3 cervical intraepithelial lesions, respectively, among those vaccinated at age 12–13 through England’s national HPV vaccination program. This report received some national headlines, but not a lot of play on social media. As a pediatric infectious diseases physician, I received several emails highlighting the results of this study. I hope that clinicians, in general, also saw these results, and that the findings may translate to more strongly recommending the HPV vaccine to their preadolescent patients. We know that provider recommendations greatly influence parental acceptance of vaccines.

HPV Vaccine is Cancer Prevention. We have the proof. Spread the word.

#CervicalHealthAwarenessMonth

To learn more, visit the St. Jude HPV Cancer Prevention Program webpage or email PREVENTHPV@stjude.org.

About the author

Katherine Knapp, MD, is an associate faculty member in the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital Infectious Diseases Department. She also serves as medical director of the hospital’s Perinatal HIV program.

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