Research exposes major gaps in HPV vaccine knowledge

Adela Talbot // Western News

Health and Rehabilitation Sciences graduate student Eric Davis recently completed a survey of Western students looking to assess awareness and knowledge of HPV, associated cancers and the Gardasil vaccine. Survey results indicated while students are aware of HPV, they need more information on associated cancer risks.

Up to 80 per cent of sexually active people will get an HPV (human papillomavirus) infection during their lifetime. And the prevalence peak of HPV infection occurs in the 18-24 age group – that is, university-aged individuals. However, according to one Western researcher, these individuals have little knowledge of the facts and risks that come with the virus.

Eric Davis, a second-year graduate student in Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, recently surveyed Western students, looking to assess awareness and knowledge of HPV, oropharyngeal (mouth and throat) cancer and the HPV vaccine, in order to identify specific knowledge gaps in Canadian university students.

His survey results were a surprise – to say the least.

The online survey was comprised of simple questions requiring only Yes/No/I don’t know or True/False responses. It had more than 1,000 respondents, with roughly half indicating they had received the HPV vaccine.

“About 50 per cent knew the HPV vaccine protects against cervical cancer. This is crazy in a university-aged population. Less than 50 per cent knew it protects against genital warts and less than 20 per cent knew it protects against oral and oropharyngeal cancers. I wanted to identify the knowledge gaps; I was surprised to see the students knew so little,” he said.

“I wasn’t asking detailed questions or trying to trick people. But there are huge knowledge gaps. It was surprising to see this in a university-educated population that has been through the HPV vaccination program.”

Approved by Health Canada in 2006, the HPV vaccine, known commercially as Gardasil, is suggested for women up to the age of 45, though for maximum effectiveness it is given as early as age 9. In 2010, Gardasil was authorized to expand its recommendations to include males aged 9-26. The Public Health Agency of Canada noted the purpose of the vaccine is to prevent HPV infection and minimize risks of associated illnesses and cancers.

“With the HPV vaccine being introduced, we’re starting to see rates of cervical cancer go down. But these non-cervical cancers, specifically throat cancer, have been skyrocketing over the last couple of decades,” Davis said, adding this study is the culmination of his MSc thesis.

Almost 90 per cent of oropharyngeal cancers are now caused by HPV, he added.

“Now that smoking rates have declined, we’re seeing a decrease in oral cancers in lips, gums and tongue, as well as a decrease in lung cancers. Those are going down. But this specific subtype (of oropharyngeal cancer) is going up and up. It’s been confirmed that it’s HPV causing that,” he continued.

“For good reason, (cervical cancer) has been the main focus of the HPV vaccine. But I found there was no study that focused on these non-cervical cancers and what students knew.”

A lot of students know about HPV – 95 per cent, roughly – but beyond that, their knowledge is poor, Davis explained.

Almost half didn’t know HPV causes throat cancer. Less than 30 per cent knew it causes anal cancer (colorectal) – another cancer that is skyrocketing.

It comes down to this: HPV, a sexually transmitted infection, can lead to cancers of the body in regions associated with sexual activity.

The next steps for Davis include disseminating the results of his study, the first of which will be publishing his thesis. His aim is to share his findings with the public through media, making information as accessible as possible to as many as possible.

“Not a lot of people read journals or theses, or go to conferences. I have results I think people need to see,” he said.

What it boils down to, Davis stressed, is awareness.

Consider, for example, a recently published alarmist piece in The Toronto Star, indicating significant health risks are associated with Gardasil. The paper’s public editor has since apologized for the piece.

“My study didn’t touch on vaccine effectiveness or safety concerns, which was the crux of The Toronto Star article. To the general population, the vaccine is safe,” he said.

Those who choose not to get the vaccine are doing so because of a perception of risk. But what they really need to know about the potential risk of cancer, something the vaccine could prevent.

“Being informed and having the correct knowledge about the virus would lead to a greater acceptance of the vaccine. If people knew more, they would get vaccinated.”