Betsy Simon, Indiana State University
The saying may be: “What you don’t know can’t hurt you,” but that’s not true when it comes to the human papillomavirus (HPV). Indiana State University assistant professors of applied health sciences Whitney Blondeau and Olabode Ayodele have teamed up to educate the university community on this ever more prevalent virus.
In order to assess the current level of knowledge regarding HPV and develop suitable educational initiatives, Blondeau and Ayodele developed a survey and sent it to students, staff and faculty in October. There were nearly 1,300 responses.
Respondents were asked to answer knowledge-based, “true, false or don’t know” questions about HPV, such as “HPV can cause cervical cancer,” “HPV can cause throat cancer” and “HPV usually doesn’t need treatment,” as well as indicate if they have ever received information on HPV and if they were interested in learning more about the virus.
“On a glance of preliminary data, people who indicated that their knowledge was good or very good, in general, many or most did not correctly answer some of the knowledge questions,” Ayodele said. “When people think they have all of the information but probably don’t, it makes providing comprehensive education more difficult. We have to develop a comprehensive education to help reach everyone, even though it can be a controversial topic.”
Their findings are preliminary and their research is ongoing, but Blondeau and Ayodele have found a stark contrast between the number of respondents who felt they were well-educated on the topic and their actual responses.
Each year, there are approximately 39,000 cancer cases resulting from HPV, including cervical and throat cancers. Ninety percent of the HPV-associated cancers are cervical cancer and 70 percent of HPV-associated cancers are oropharyngeal (throat, tongue or tonsils). By 2020, the prevalence of oropharyngeal HPV-associated cancer is expected to exceed HPV-related cervical cancer.
Various educational efforts regarding HPV have been initiated on campus, but not with a comprehensive understanding of baseline knowledge about HPV across Indiana State’s campus such as the study conducted this fall by Blondeau and Ayodele.
“Our goal is to reduce stigma and to correct misconceptions about HPV and HPV-associated cancers. One of the misconceptions is that HPV is only a sexually-transmitted infection — the research evidence on that is inconclusive,” said Blondeau, who arrived at Indiana State this fall.
With a passion to advance the HPV conversation to include research related to HPV epidemiology, transmission and inclusion of oropharyngeal and other HPV-associated cancers, Blondeau has teamed up with Ayodele to raise awareness and educate the university community.
“This is not a problem that is unique to ISU or Indiana, so we want to use the findings to make recommendations and develop interventions to educate the university community and add to the global dialogue,” Ayodele said. “HPV is an epidemic, and there is no treatment. That means there is no time like the present to educate and raise awareness on the issue.”
They hope to hit the ground running by bringing HPV awareness interventions to campus as early as this spring, including the showing of a documentary, as well as developing collaborations with partners on campus and internationally that will increase awareness and education.
“Most cases of HPV disappear without any signs or symptoms, but for the 39,000 individuals each year who develop cancer from HPV — those cases can be deadly. We have the potential to lose a significant number of people from HPV, and that is simply not acceptable,” Blondeau said. “We have enough issues related to various stigmas in our society — HPV does not need to be another one. Our goal is to continue educational efforts and raise awareness to reduce the number of HPV-associated cancers. By actively talking about it and advancing HPV-related research, we can begin to reduce its stigma and find solutions.”