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Quarter of girls missing out on life-saving vaccine

Tuesday 1 March, 2011
  • 1 in 4 teen girls reportedly not having cervical cancer vaccine
  • 2 in 3 teen girls not aware human papillomavirus (HPV) causes cervical cancer
  • Over half not aware HPV sexually transmitted
  • Parental misconceptions common

Cancer Council Australia suggests an alarming lack of knowledge may be to blame for the fact that many girls aged 12-13 are not having the cervical cancer vaccine, despite it being available free of charge through schools under the Australian Government's National HPV Vaccination Program.

In response, Cancer Council Australia this week launched a new website, which aims to increase participation in the vaccination program, at a time when many girls aged 12-13 are returning to school and being offered the potentially life-saving vaccine.

In a recent Australian study (1) almost 3000 students in Year 10 and Year 12 were interviewed, of whom only 33% had heard of HPV. Over half the girls interviewed (54%) didn't know that HPV is transmitted through sexual contact, while 62% weren't aware that HPV causes cervical cancer.

"Given these low levels of knowledge were identified in Year 10 and 12 students who have had access to the free National HPV Vaccination Program, we would expect knowledge to be lower again in girls aged 12-13 who are currently deciding whether to have the vaccine," said Cancer Council spokesperson Kate Broun.

"Infection with the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus is extremely common and typically has no symptoms. The virus is usually cleared from the body by the immune system, but sometimes it can have very serious consequences - which is why the vaccine is so important."

Separate qualitative research indicates similarly low levels of parental knowledge about HPV and the vaccine.
Many parents were unsure about when their daughter should have the vaccine (2), while others expressed their mistrust of medical experts in favour of the vaccination and voiced concerns about the vaccine "condoning" early sexual activity, despite evidence to the contrary.(3)

"Unfortunately, these research findings suggest that knowledge about HPV and this vaccine - which protects against the two HPV types which cause 70% of cervical cancers - is really quite low among teenage girls and their parents," said Ms Broun.

"We know that when both parents and girls understand the potentially serious implications of HPV infection and how vaccination can protect girls against the virus, parents are far more likely to give consent for their daughter to have the vaccine."

"The cervical cancer vaccine is a major leap forward in cancer control: if all eligible girls were to take advantage of this free program and have the vaccine, we could see 70% of cervical cancers eradicated in the future."

"Cancer Council Australia's new website provides independent, evidence-based information that dispels myths about the vaccine's safety and concerns that it can lead to earlier sexual activity."

"It tells teens and parents the facts they need to know: that this vaccine is extremely safe, and extremely effective in protecting against cervical cancer."

"Our message for parents and girls aged 12-13 is: check out the website, find out as much as you can, then make a decision about the vaccine together," Ms Broun concluded.

Further information

  • The cervical cancer vaccine Gardasil® is offered free of charge to all girls aged 12-13 under the Australian Government's National HPV Vaccination Program.
  • HPV is a very common sexually transmitted infection which in most cases is cleared from the body naturally by the immune system, but can sometimes cause serious illnesses including cervical cancer.
  • Gardasil® protects against HPV types 16 and 18, which cause 70% of cervical cancers and HPV types 6 and 11, which cause 90% of genital warts.
  • The vaccine is given as three injections in the upper arm over a six month period and is best given before exposure to HPV occurs - that is, before sexual activity begins.
  • Regular Pap tests remain vital for all women, even if they have received the cervical cancer vaccine. This is because the vaccine does not protect against all HPV types which can cause abnormal Pap test results and potentially cervical cancer. For more information about Pap tests or to find a local Pap test clinic call 13 15 56.

  1. Vaccine 28 (2010) 4416-4422 Human papillomavirus and cervical cancer: Gardasil® vaccination status and knowledge amongst a nationally representative sample of Australian secondary school students. Paul A. Agius, Marian K. Pitts, Anthony M.A. Smith, Anne Mitchell.
  2. Vaccine 28 (2010) 3398-3408 "Is cancer contagious?": Australian adolescent girls and their parents: Making the most of limited information about HPV and HPV vaccination. Spring Chenoa Cooper Robbins, Diana Bernarda, Kirsten McCaffery, Julia Brotherton, Suzanne Garland, S. Rachel Skinner.
  3. Health Psychology (2010) Vol. 29, No. 6, 618-625 "I Just Signed": Factors Influencing Decision-Making for School-Based
    HPV Vaccination of Adolescent Girls. Spring Chenoa Cooper Robbins, Diana Bernarda, Kirsten McCaffery, Julia Brotherton, S. Rachel Skinner.