Young women are more likely to take the HPV vaccine if they are told it protects from a nasty sexually transmitted disease, even though it also protects from potentially deadly cervical cancer, researchers from The Ohio State University and Texas Tech University discovered.

Emphasizing the HPV vaccine’s STD (sexually transmitted disease) prevention is better at getting more young women to take it.

Most health care professionals believe that scaring women about a cancer risk is more effective – this is not so as far as the HPV vaccine is concerned, the researchers found.

Lead author, Janice Krieger and Melanie Sarge believe the reason why fewer than 20% of adolescent American girls have received the HPV vaccine is the failure of the cancer-threat message.

Krieger said:

“Young women don’t respond strongly to the threat of cervical cancer. They seem to be more worried about getting an STD. That’s the way we should try to encourage them to get the HPV vaccine.”

Gardasil, the most commonly used HPV vaccine in the USA, prevents human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. HPV is responsible for the the majority of cervical cancers are well as genital warts.

Genital warts, also known as condylomata acuminate or venereal warts, are one of the most common kinds of STDs. A genital wart is an infection of the skin that affects the genital or anal area, as well as the mucous membranes of the vagina, cervix and rectum. If 26% of American girls aged 14 to 19 have at least one sexually transmitted disease, telling young women and adolescent girls that the HPV vaccine can help protect them from an STD is a very relevant message.

Previous studies that had shown that telling females about how the HPV vaccine prevents cervical cancer was effective, focused on women of all age groups, including elderly females. However, this vaccine is aimed at women under 26 years of age.

Cancer is not something young people worry about. We tend to start worrying about cancer later in life, not while we are in high school or college.

Krieger and Sarge wrote about their study in the journal Health Communication.

The authors decided to carry out a clean study that compared the impact of the two messages – HPV vaccines’ cancer prevention versus its protection from an STD – on young college-aged women and their mothers.

Krieger said “We decided to do a clean study that compared what message worked best with college-aged women versus what worked with their mothers.”

All the participants were given a packet of materials that included a pro-vaccine message and a questionnaire. The students also had a message recommending them to discuss the HPV vaccine with their doctor. The mothers had a message which encouraged them to persuade their daughters to see a doctor.

Krieger and Sarge created two different messages:

  • Prevent cervical cancer group – half of the students and half of the mothers were given a message sheet with a large headline that read “Prevent cervical cancer”
  • Prevent genital warts group – half of the students and their mothers received a similar message with a different headline which read “Prevent genital warts”.

Both messages had a text box at the top which re-emphasized either the genital warts or cancer message.

They were all given some time to read their packet of materials and were then asked to complete the questionnaire, which covered a range of questions, including how they felt about the threat of HPV and whether they thought it might be a good idea to see a doctor (or for their daughter to see a doctor) about taking the vaccine.

The results showed that significantly more women in the “prevent genital warts group” were keen to see a doctor compared to those in the other group.

The young women in the “prevent genital warts group” also felt more comfortable about talking to their doctor about the vaccine. Krieger said “Preventing cancer was not a big motivator.”

Overall, the researchers found that scaring young women into having the vaccine is not very effective.

It was not the threat of becoming infected with HPV that motivated the women to seek the vaccine, the authors explained. What mattered was feeling comfortable about talking to a doctor about it.

Krieger said:

“Our results suggest it is more important to get women to feel comfortable talking to their doctor about the vaccine. Fear doesn’t work. They need to feel it is not difficult or embarrassing to discuss the vaccine with their doctor. That’s the best way to encourage them to be vaccinated.”

The researchers admitted that their findings were an eye-opener. They, like most other health care professionals, had expected the mothers to be motivated to encourage their daughters to get the HPV vaccine if they read about its cancer rather than STD prevention benefit.

As the mothers were in a stage in life when cancer is a bigger issue, they had expected cancer to be the main motivator. The researchers also wondered whether mothers might feel uncomfortable about an STD message that assumes their daughters were having sex.

It seems that the mothers were not affected by which message they read.

Krieger concluded:

“We believed that mothers would react negatively to the message about preventing genital warts, but that wasn’t supported. Mothers reacted similarly to the genital warts and cancer prevention messages. It suggests that if we focus on the prevention of genital warts in our messages to daughters, it may not mean we have lost the mothers.”

The authors believe their findings should encourage doctors and policymakers to shift the emphasis in the messages from cancer to STD prevention regarding the HPV vaccine.

Written by Christian Nordqvist