Parents key in raising HPV vaccination rates to protect children from cancer

Vagney Bradley
March 17, 2020
HPV parent ambassador Katie Fox holds her baby in her lap
HPV parent ambassador Katie Fox serves as an advocate in her community about the importance of HPV vaccination. Photo by Vagney Bradley

With the video cameras rolling, school teacher Katie Fox calmly asks the questions she’s been posing to many parents lately.

“What if a parent could give their child a shot to prevent six different types of cancers? Why wouldn’t parents want to do that?”

She thinks they would if they knew the facts. It’s why she joined the HPV Parent Ambassador Program offered by Hollings Cancer Center as part of its statewide HPV initiative. The goal of the initiative is to improve vaccination rates in the state for the human papillomavirus. Through this program, parent ambassadors are given the tools to start conversations and answer questions in their communities about the importance of HPV vaccination to protect children against HPV-related cancers.

Fox says the program has given her important information and the confidence to educate her peers to have meaningful discussions.

Every year in the United States, HPV causes more than 30,000 cases of cancer in men and women, and the HPV vaccine can prevent about 90% of these cases from ever occurring.

On a mission to raise HPV vaccination rates in children across the state, which ranked the lowest in the nation in 2016, Hollings Cancer Center initiated a $700,000 three-year project. Leading the initiative is Hollings Cancer Center researcher Kathleen Cartmell, Ph.D., who also is a Clemson University associate professor in the Department of Public Health Sciences. Also part of the Hollings research project team is Beth Sundstrom, Ph.D., a College of Charleston associate professor who specializes in strategic health communication. Sundstrom leads the statewide campaign, "HPV Vaccination NOW: This is our Moment."

The goal of the social and digital media campaign is to educate parents, adolescents and health care providers in the state about the HPV vaccination and to empower parents to be advocates for HPV vaccination.

“Nationally, we had the third largest increase in HPV vaccine up-to-date status from 2016 to 2017. I believe this is a transformative moment to build on our success and protect a generation of girls and boys from six HPV-related cancers. It is an exciting time to work toward eliminating HPV-related cancers in South Carolina,” said Sundstrom, who also serves as a faculty affiliate in the Cancer Control Program at the Medical University of South Carolina’s Hollings Cancer Center.

“Through my research, I have talked with hundreds of parents throughout our state. I know that parents in South Carolina are compassionate and thoughtful. They want to do what is best for their children and their families. That is why we are focused on listening and raising the voices and stories of parents.”

A parent’s perspective

Fox, HPV parent ambassador and mother of two young children, believes it is important for parents in the state to know the facts about the vaccine.

“Education is key to so much, so I think that our vaccination rates are lower than some other states because of a lack of education, which is what we're trying to change through this program,” Fox said. “Talking to other parents and other people about all the different ways that the HPV vaccine can be beneficial to our kids and how it protects against six different cancers and learning the things that we didn't know before we got into the ambassador program is important.”

To date, 22 parents from across the state have completed the three-month training, which also prepares them to be effective spokespersons for HPV vaccination. Through the program, parents have access to both a private Facebook group that offers daily posts and online HPV awareness webinars. Biweekly, they receive emails about HPV and facts about the vaccination.

“I originally thought that HPV vaccine only protected against cervical cancer, but through the program, I found out about throat and other HPV-related cancers,” Fox said.

HPV-associated cancers, including cervical, oropharyngeal (throat) and other anogenital cancers (anal, penile, vaginal, vulvar), affect men and women.

“I want to protect my kids in every way that I can, and this is a very easy way to protect them against HPV; it's one less thing that I have to worry about,” Fox said. “Since the majority of people are exposed to HPV in their lifetimes, it just seems like an obvious way to protect our kids to get them vaccinated and make sure that they are protected.”

Beth Sundstrom 
Beth Sundstrom, Ph.D., leads the statewide HPV Vaccination NOW campaign and is part of the HPV research team at Hollings Cancer Center. Photo provided

Through her research, Sundstrom has found that many conversations about vaccines take place online through social media. She feels it is important to meet “your audience where they are,” so it is essential for the Parent Ambassador Program to have social media training and teach parents to be bold enough to have discussions online.

“It truly is a transformative moment that we can build on the success we've had over the last few years and work toward eliminating HPV-related cancers in South Carolina,” Sundstrom said. “Working with parents on social media is a place where we can build on our success and really make a difference because parents have the power to shape the future.”

More than 60% of teens in this state receive the first dose, but health providers need to reach at least 80% of young adults to protect the next generation of girls and boys fully from HPV-related cancers, Sundstrom said. “Parents have the power to shape the future, and they can prevent cancer by choosing the HPV vaccination.”

Community outreach

Part of the HPV initiative includes community outreach. In addition to the social and digital media campaign, Hollings Cancer Center also supports health care provider training and partnerships with health systems in the state to improve processes for delivering HPV vaccination to patients.

The goal of the statewide HPV Vaccination Initiative is to educate health care professionals, including school nurse leaders such as Wendy Judy. Judy, the lead nurse in Dorchester School District 4, is a member of the S.C. School Nurse Program Advisory Council and an advocate for the HPV vaccination. 

"We can never stop educating; and if we can just vaccinate one more child, then that's one more than we had a minute before we did it. It's not a sprint. It's a marathon.” – Wendy Judy, lead school nurse & HPV vaccination advocate

“I'm very fortunate that I also live in the area where I work, so parents see me in the community, and it builds trust,” Judy said. “When having the conversations about the HPV vaccination, it’s important to plant that seed of letting parents know what could happen if their children don't get vaccinated.”

As a school nurse and parent of two, Judy knew it was vital for her daughters, who are now in their twenties, to receive the recommended HPV vaccinations. It was never a question in her mind if her children were going to receive the vaccine. Judy also feels strongly about spreading HPV vaccination awareness to other parents in her community. Working in the health profession, in a school setting, allows her to educate other parents.

“We can never stop educating; and if we can just vaccinate one more child, then that's one more than we had a minute before we did it,” Judy said. “It's not a sprint. It's a marathon.”

Did you know?

  • HPV infection can cause cancers of the cervix, vagina and vulva in women; cancers of the penis in men; and cancers of the anus and back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils (oropharynx), in both women and men.
  • According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), two doses of the HPV vaccine are recommended for all boys and girls at ages 11 to 12, and the vaccine can be given as early as the age of 9. Catch-up vaccination is also recommended for adolescents and young adults up to the age of 26 who missed getting the vaccine earlier. 
  • According to the CDC, vaccination rates in South Carolina fall below national averages. South Carolina ranks 18th in new cases of cervical cancer and 11th in cervical cancer deaths in the United States. Each year in South Carolina, it is estimated that 170 women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer, and 75 women will die from the disease.
  • Half of South Carolina adolescents between the ages of 13 and 17 still have not received all HPV vaccine doses that are needed to prevent HPV cancers.
  • The safe and effective HPV vaccine can prevent about 90% of HPV-related cancers in the future.
  • The vaccine is free to low-cost.
  • More information about HPV and Cancer.