A study suggests that focusing on preventing the STD human papillomavirus (HPV) rather than cervical cancer will persuade more young women to get the vaccine. Janice Krieger, assistant professor of communication at the Ohio State University and lead author of the study, concluded that the failure of the cancer-threat message may be one reason that fewer than 20 percent of US adolescent females have had the HPV vaccine.
In the study, 188 female college students (mean age 22 years) and 115 of their mothers (mean age 50 years) received a packet of materials, including a questionnaire and a pro-vaccine message. The student message recommended talking to a doctor about HPV vaccine and the parent message recommended encouraging the daughter to talk to a doctor. One-half of the mothers and students received a message sheet about the vaccine titled “Prevent Cervical Cancer.” The other half received the same type of message titled, “Prevent Genital Warts.” A text box on the message sheet re-emphasized either the cancer or genital warts message. Participants then completed a questionnaire enquiring how they felt about the threat of HPV and whether they or their daughter could talk to a doctor about getting the vaccine.
Results indicated that the message emphasizing the vaccine’s effectiveness at preventing warts was more important to the students. Young women who read that the vaccine prevented genital warts were more likely to report that they intended to talk to their doctor about the vaccine and that they felt more comfortable talking to the doctor about it. Preventing cancer did not motivate them. Researchers hypothesized that mothers would be more likely to talk to their daughters about getting the vaccine after reading the cancer prevention message. However, mothers reacted similarly to both messages.
Findings indicated that young women did not respond strongly to the threat of cervical cancer, but were more concerned about getting an STD. Also, it was more important to get women to feel comfortable talking to their doctor about the vaccine, as fear was not an adequate motivator. The researchers concluded that results should encourage policy makers and others to shift their messages about the HPV vaccine, since cancer did not seem to be the top concern for young women.
The full report, “A Serial Mediation Model of Message Framing on Intentions to Receive the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Vaccine: Revisiting the Role of Threat and Efficacy Perceptions,” was published in the journal Health Communications (2013; 28(1): 5–19).
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