LAWRENCE — As vaccines have been politicized and people face pressures whether to receive them, one group is often overlooked. A group of University of Kansas researchers is launching an initiative to better understand how people ages 18-24 decide whether to receive the human papillomavirus vaccine.
The William Randolph Hearst Foundation has awarded KU a two-year, $250,000 grant to better understand the decision-making process of young adults about whether to get the HPV vaccine and how that can inform future health communication campaigns to encourage vaccination. The vaccines can prevent HPV, the most common sexually transmitted infection, but CDC data has shown only 49% of teens between ages 13-17 have received the recommended dosage. That corresponds with a time when young people become more sexually active and are prone to contracting the virus, which can cause cervical and oropharyngeal cancers.
“It is a real honor to get this grant. What intrigued us is, in this era when vaccines have become controversial, how do young people make their decisions about them?” said Ann Brill, dean of the William Allen White School of Journalism & Mass Communications and co-author of the grant. “The HPV vaccine has been proven to prevent cancers, but we want to look at variables influencing why people make these decisions. Is it for their health? Are there other social influences?”
Researchers in the journalism school will partner with the National Cancer Institute-designated University of Kansas Cancer Center and KU Medical Center to learn more about the target population’s decision making and to design a health communications campaign that delivers information on the topic in a way sample groups indicate is effective in reaching them. Researchers, including students in The Agency, KU’s strategic communications student media organization, will gather data from young people ages 18-24 both on campus and throughout the Kansas City metropolitan area.
The research team cited evidence, including media coverage of young adults defying their parents to get COVID-19 vaccines, as an example of newfound autonomy people in the target population have that needs to be better understood. Making one’s own medical decisions can be a rite of passage.
HPV vaccines were originally targeted to young women but are effective for men as well. Data shows men are vaccinated at lower rates, and researchers will address if and how gender influences young people’s decisions to make such health decisions. Ultimately, the team will hold a kickoff event for the campaign and share messages both informed and created by young people aimed at improving public health and training a new generation in effective health communications.
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