Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the nation. About 75 percent of Americans will contract the virus during their lifetime, and younger populations face the greatest risk.
Research indicates that almost three quarters of new HPV infections occur in people between 15 and 24 years old. But a recent study conducted by researchers at Texas State University found that many college students are unaware of or misinformed about the risks posed by HPV.
Dr. Megan Trad, assistant professor in the radiation therapy program at Texas State University, led the study with the help of Dr. Robert F. Reardon, associate professor of adult education. The team aimed to slow the spread of HPV by identifying knowledge gaps and increasing preventative education.
Their research, published in the journal Radiologic Technology, found that men tend to be misinformed about the risks associated with HPV. Many know the virus can result in cervical cancer, but they are unaware it can also lead to head, neck, anal and penile cancer in men.
While working at a Texas State University health fair where students were provided free HPV vaccinations, Trad noted that male students seemed offended at being offered the vaccine for a disease they thought was ‘only for women.’ The observation inspired her team to research awareness of HPV among both genders.
“Young girls are socialized to discuss reproductive issues from a very young age, and boys are not,” Reardon said. “There’s a lot that can be done to improve the sexual awareness of young men that would allow them to discuss these issues in a much more open way.”
According to the study, rates of infections are equal for both genders because HPV is a ‘shared’ virus. But a lack of tools for accurately testing men can make it appear as if the virus is more prevalent in women.
“Probably the most disturbing [finding] was that they were not aware that it could be contracted through intercourse, and it could be also contracted through other types of intimate contact,” Reardon said.
The results indicated that only 15.5 percent of students were aware that HPV can be transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, meaning condoms do not offer foolproof protection against the disease.
HPV is the cause of 99.7 percent of all cases of cervical cancer in women. A higher number of sexual partners, prior infections and becoming sexually active at an early age increase risks of infection. Vaccines are most effective for people who have not yet become sexually active, Reardon said.
In 2008, Governor Rick Perry received much backlash when he mandated that all girls entering sixth grade would be required to receive the HPV vaccination. The mandate was overturned, but Trad and Reardon wanted to know if the heightened media attention led Texas students to become more aware of HPV and its associated risks. Their findings led them to believe that increased education is needed.
“Setting the political issues aside, the level of awareness and education should be addressed,” Reardon said.
Researchers sent a 35-question survey to 3,819 Texas State students, 411 of which responded. They chose to poll freshmen in their first semester because their responses gave the closest indication of a wide range of demographics.
The team found that there was no significant difference in knowledge between genders, ages and ethnicities. According to Reardon, the response rate was remarkably representative of the ethnic breakdown of Texas State students.
"A lot of times, you’ll see ethnicity play a role in who says what, but not in this case, it didn’t," Reardon said.
After completing the survey, students were provided with the correct responses as well as links to websites with information on HPV, vaccination and cancer risks.