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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Gaps in detailed knowledge of human papillomavirus (HPV) and the HPV vaccine among medical students in Scotland

Sarah M McCusker1, Ishbel Macqueen1, Graham Lough1, Alasdair I MacDonald1, Christine Campbell2 and Sheila V Graham1*

Author Affiliations

1 MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research, Institute of Infection Immunity and Inflammation, College of Medical, Veterinary and Life Sciences, University of Glasgow, Glasgow, Scotland, G12 8TT, UK

2 Centre for Population Health Sciences, The University of Edinburgh, Room 309, Doorway 1, Medical Quad, Teviot Place, Edinburgh, Scotland, EH8 9AG, UK

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BMC Public Health 2013, 13:264  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-13-264

Published: 22 March 2013

Abstract

Background

A vaccination programme targeted against human papillomavirus (HPV) types16 and 18 was introduced in the UK in 2008, with the aim of decreasing incidence of cervical disease. Vaccine roll out to 12–13 year old girls with a catch-up programme for girls aged up to 17 years and 364 days was accompanied by a very comprehensive public health information (PHI) campaign which described the role of HPV in the development of cervical cancer.

Methods

A brief questionnaire, designed to assess acquisition of knowledge of HPV infection and its association to cervical cancer, was administered to two different cohorts of male and female 1st year medical students (school leavers: 83% in age range 17–20) at a UK university. The study was timed so that the first survey in 2008 immediately followed a summer's intensive PHI campaign and very shortly after vaccine roll-out (150 students). The second survey was exactly one year later over which time there was a sustained PHI campaign (213 students).

Results

We addressed three research questions: knowledge about three specific details of HPV infection that could be acquired from PHI, whether length of the PHI campaign and/or vaccination of females had any bearing on HPV knowledge, and knowledge differences between men and women regarding HPV. No female student in the 2008 cohort had completed the three-dose vaccine schedule compared to 58.4% of female students in 2009. Overall, participants’ knowledge regarding the sexually transmitted nature of HPV and its association with cervical cancer was high in both year groups. However, in both years, less than 50% of students correctly identified that HPV causes over 90% of cases of cervical cancer. Males gave fewer correct answers for these two details in 2009. In 2008 only around 50% of students recognised that the current vaccine protects against a limited subset of cervical cancer-causing HPV sub-types, although there was a significant increase in correct response among female students in the 2009 cohort compared to the 2008 cohort.

Conclusions

This study highlights a lack of understanding regarding the extent of protection against cervical cancer conferred by the HPV vaccine, even among an educated population in the UK who could have a vested interest in acquiring such knowledge. The intensive PHI campaign accompanying the first year of HPV vaccination seemed to have little effect on knowledge over time. This is one of the first studies to assess detailed knowledge of HPV in both males and females. There is scope for continued improvements to PHI regarding the link between HPV infection and cervical cancer.

Keywords:
Human papillomavirus; Knowledge; Vaccine; Medical students; Public health