Human papilloma virus (HPV), computer illustration. HPV causes warts, which mostly occur on the hands and feet. Certain strains also infect the genitals. Although most warts are non-malignant (not cancerous), some strains of HPV have been associated with cancers, especially cervical cancer. (Photo: Getty Images)

An HPV-free world is possible – but we won’t get it through threats and insults

Threatening people who don’t vaccinate for HPV does more harm than good, writes Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw.

I hate a cervical smear, I really do. I look forward to the day when I no longer have to endure that particular bloody awkward and painful part of owning a cervix. I mean really there really are few things less fun in the world. I won’t go on (but I could I really could). Lets just say I know that those of you with a cervix reading this are right now thinking “fucking eh’’.

I am hoping that by the time my daughter’s are my age the HPV virus – the main virus that causes cervical cancer and cancers of the head and neck and genital warts (such a shitty word) – will be gone. Poof, wiped out by the magic that is science and people acting together in beautiful harmony. I would like it if there were wands involved, and maybe some magical fireworks as well. And absolutely there should be a soundtrack, perhaps the Magician’s Apprentice?

It would be wonderful for all our children to live in a world where HPV was non existent. And it is totally possible! Though at the moment we are wobbling a bit on getting there.

As parents, caregivers, grandparents we want to wrap our children up in love and do our very best for them. Sometimes we fall down, but goodness do we try. Vaccination is one of those areas where we get scared, or hesitant. We worry about something we have heard from a Facebook group or a friend about the side effects of vaccinations. In the case of HPV we may even think we can control their sexual behaviour by avoiding the vaccine. Because who wants their kids to grow up too quickly? But fear is not a useful thing when talking about vaccination.

Fear does a very particular thing to us as humans: it makes us retreat and look for the easiest, most simple solution. There is an evolutionary reason for this. When you are running from a sabre tooth tiger your brain just needs to direct your body to get away into a tree, not stop and think of some more clever ways how to run. So fear stops us seeing the wonderful benefits of being protected from the HPV virus. It stops us from seeing the good evidence. The evidence that HPV is effective, safe and an act of love.

So if parents are fearful or hesitant, how can we overcome that? First up, threatening or punishing parents will certainly not help anyone see the benefits of vaccination. It may have short term impacts on some people, but on the whole it will not change behaviours. It will certainly not build a trusting and trusted relationship between people. We might get a vaccination from one person now, but how will they talk about it to others? How will they view it in the future? What happens when the next fear-based media storm occurs? Any behavioural changes that we do bring about based on fear or money will also ultimately cause harm in many other areas where building trust between people and evidence is really important.

Image: Pixabay.

Talking the language of trust

What the science suggests that researchers, scientists, medical professionals and other parents need to do in order to help people see that HPV is something that we can absolutely deal with is to build trust by talking about what we have in common. Don’t threaten and force, insult and degrade. Instead let’s talk about the bigger picture of what we all care about for our children and what we value as a society.

Did you know that when offered a vaccination only 4% of New Zealanders decline? We don’t need to be forced, we trust that vaccinations are about taking care of ourselves and others. We are also pretty resistant to fear based campaigns on vaccination. Which it is why it is so disappointing that some schools don’t offer the HPV vaccination – they are not reflecting how most people in New Zealand feel about taking care of children.

Young people and their parents are being denied the best opportunity to be healthy, with some schools deciding not to offer the vaccination programme. Having it on offer at schools is a key way to improve access for people – busy parents, busy lives means it drops off the list of things to do. It also helps those children least likely to have the means and access to go to a GP. That shows a commitment to giving a choice to all children in our community, not just some.

Schools need to show leadership

Well done to those schools that are already showing leadership on this issue. For others they can show the care they have for the children in their communities and start offering the HPV vaccination. Give them the opportunity to experience a healthy life without cervical cancer.

If your school does not offer HPV vaccinations, demand they do. Not just for the sake of your child but for all the children we collectively have a responsibility for.

Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw is co-director of research collaborative The Workshop. Jess researches and communicates on values and science, and has just written a book on the topic A Matter of Fact. She has two children who are fully vaccinated.

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