Virginia was one of the first states in the union to mandate the human papillomavirus vaccine for sixth-grade girls in an effort to prevent cervical cancer and other types of sexually transmitted cancers. But in the years since the measure’s 2008 passage, opt-outs have been more the rule than the exception, with fewer than 28 percent of Virginia girls receiving the three-series vaccination in 2014 compared to more than 38 percent of girls nationally.
Now, armed with a National Cancer Institute grant, nursing professors Jessica Keim-Malpass and Emma Mitchell are studying why.
The HPV vaccine has been shadowed with controversy since its introduction, much focused on the discomfort of vaccinating children as young as nine for a disease that’s transmitted sexually.
“There is a lot of squeamishness about the topic, and that doesn’t help with vaccine initiation or completion,” explained Malpass, who teaches pediatrics. “And even if the vaccine is the best tool we have to prevent cervical cancer, it can be a hard sell to parents.
“It seems like a far-removed concept, and unless you’ve seen someone with cervical, rectal, penile or anal cancer, you have little context. It’s not the immediate protective impact, like a flu shot. People aren’t motivated. And that’s what we have to change.” >>