Project uses education, vaccination to prevent HPV infections

April 21, 2015 | News, Research, UToday, — Health Sciences
By Cynthia Nowak

It’s a silent epidemic that adds another 14 million new cases every year, most of them in young people age 15 to 24. It increases the risk for several forms of cancer. It’s wholly avoidable; just three injections provide a lifetime of protection — yet fewer than half of college-age students are fully vaccinated against the human papillomavirus (HPV), the world’s most common sexually transmitted infection.

Two faculty members in the College of Health Sciences, April Gardner and Natalie Walkup, are out to change the numbers. The two doctoral students, along with other doctoral and master’s students in the Health Education Program, are spearheading an educational effort on Main Campus aimed at making sure all students understand the risks of HPV and receive the three necessary injections of the vaccine Gardasil.

“Our goal is to reach every Main Campus student between the ages of 18 and 26,” Gardner said. “They represent a group of young adults nationwide who are unvaccinated or under-vaccinated. Many of them may not know whether they received the vaccine when they were children.”

“We want to raise the question so the students can ask either their parents or their family physician,” Walkup added. “And although 96 percent of insurance plans cover Gardasil, we want students to check on that as well, because they will be financially responsible for the vaccinations otherwise.”

If they find that they still need to be vaccinated and wish to do so, the students will be able to sign up online to receive the Gardasil at the Main Campus Medical Center.

Because the academic year is winding down, the co-investigators said, the program at this point is in its educational phase, with a website and online sign-up slated to be developed this summer and the main effort to begin fall semester.

Gardner and Walkup hope to ultimately publish the project’s results to encourage similar initiatives on other campuses nationwide.

The statistics associated with HPV warrant the push, the two said. Spread through all forms of sexual intercourse and through skin-to-skin contact, the infection can be prevented by the use of condoms — a reported habit in only half of sexually active college students.

The Gardasil vaccine protects nearly 100 percent from the long-term risks that come with HPV: genital warts and an increased chance of cervical, penile, vaginal, vulvar and oropharyngeal cancers.

Walkup said, “Statistically speaking, we have approximately 8,000 students on Main Campus who are under-vaccinated against HPV, and this age group is the highest risk of exposure. We have the opportunity to make a huge impact here on UT’s campus as well as nationwide.”

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