young girl in doctor's office

The human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine can prevent infections from the 2 types of HPV responsible for 70% of all cervical cancers. But many Americans who would benefit from getting the vaccine do not know this information – even though the vaccine has been available for more than 7 years.

This is according to a new American Cancer Society study of 1,417 people categorized as “HPV vaccine-relevant” – those who are or who have an individual in their immediate family who is 9 to 27 years old. This is the target age group for the HPV vaccine, although it works best when given to individuals before they have any sexual contact with another person.

Seven in 10 people surveyed said they “don’t know” when asked: “How successful is the HPV vaccine at preventing cervical cancer?” That figured jumped to 78% among non-Hispanic blacks.

“One of the reasons for this we found is that patient-provider conversations about the HPV vaccine were limited,” says Kassandra Alcaraz, Ph.D., MPH, the lead author of the study and director of health disparities research at the American Cancer Society. She presented the findings at a conference in December.

Only one in 4 respondents said they had talked with a health care provider about the HPV vaccine. Those who hadn’t were far more likely to lack knowledge about its effectiveness.

The lack of knowledge may help explain low vaccination rates in the U.S. In a 2012 study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only about 33% of adolescent girls had received all 3 doses of the vaccine.

Education did make a difference though – those with a college degree were more likely to have received information about the vaccine from a health care provider. “Cervical cancer is one of the more preventable cancers, but as previous studies have also shown, there are big disparities,” says Alcaraz.

The inequality is likely partly related to health literacy issues. “It may be that we may need to look at how we are communicating about the vaccine and its effectiveness … and develop more targeted or more appropriate messages for certain subgroups,” according to Alcaraz.

Overall though, Alcaraz says she and her colleagues were very surprised by their findings. They expected that low uptake of the vaccine was due to people’s negative perceptions of it. “But it wasn’t that; it was just that they were uncertain,” she says. “We didn’t realize there was such limited patient-provider communication about the vaccine.”

Alcaraz suggests there are a number of possible reasons for this. “Some of it may be related to the time health care providers have with patients – visits are becoming shorter.” Another potential issue is that there are many people who don’t have a primary health care provider. “If they don’t have a permanent medical home, they may not be having these types of conversations.”

The key takeaway she says is that “confidence in the vaccine needs to be increased, not just awareness of it.”


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