June 16, 2018

Parents ranked cancer prevention as the most compelling reason healthcare providers can give for recommending the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, according to a survey led by researchers in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health.

The findings, published June 14 in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, offer guidance as to what doctors and other healthcare providers should emphasize to parents when discussing vaccination for their children against HPV, a sexually transmitted virus that can cause oral, head and neck, genital and cervical cancers.

Dr. Melissa Gilkey

Dr. Melissa Gilkey

“Parents confirmed the advice from the CDC and other professional organizations, which is that cancer prevention is the most important reason for HPV vaccination,” said Melissa B. Gilkey, PhD, assistant professor of health behavior in the Gillings School and a member of UNC’s Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. “Providers report giving a wide variety of reasons to vaccinate, but this study suggests that what parents really want to hear about is cancer prevention. This was true even for parents who had relatively low confidence in adolescent vaccination.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 41,000 people are diagnosed with HPV-associated cancer in the United States each year. HPV vaccination could prevent most HPV-linked cancers, which include cancers of the throat, cervix and genitals. However, only 43 percent of adolescents in the country were up-to-date on the HPV vaccine in 2016, according to the CDC. Studies have shown that a provider’s recommendation is highly influential in promoting vaccine follow-through.

“Research has shown that a provider’s recommendation is the single most important factor in whether parents decide to get their kids vaccinated,” Gilkey said. “Public health organizations, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are leading large-scale campaigns to improve provider communication about HPV vaccination. We’re working to understand what the most powerful messages are to inform those ongoing interventions.”

The researchers drew their findings from a survey of 1,177 adults in the United States with children between the ages 11 and 17. The parents were asked to rank, from best to worst, a list of reasons that doctors commonly use to encourage parents to consider vaccinating their child against HPV.

Parents said cancer prevention was the most persuasive reason for HPV vaccination. The prevention of a common infection, the vaccine’s lasting benefits and its safety also scored high. Reasons that received low rankings included, “It is a scientific breakthrough,” and, “I got it for my own child.”

When the researchers compared the responses from parents who had low confidence in adolescent vaccines at the outset, they found these parents ranked messages very similarly to parents who had high confidence.

“This should give providers confidence that leading with the idea of cancer prevention doesn’t have to be targeted toward a particular type of parent,” Gilkey said. “Cancer prevention is likely to be your best bet no matter who you’re talking to.”

The study was supported by the National Cancer Institute.

The original version of this article was published by the UNC Lineberger Cancer Center.


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Contact the Gillings School of Global Public Health communications team at sphcomm@listserv.unc.edu.

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