Casey Myburgh's picture

360 Dollars: A Small Price to Pay for a Life

A 28-year-old mother of two was diagnosed with
late-stage cervical cancer. She [[wysiwyg_imageupload:173:]]had a week to “get her affairs in order” – which meant signing adoption papers for her children  – before going into surgery for a radical hysterectomy. Luckily, she survived and is considered “cured.” But when curing someone requires such a physical and emotional life-long burden, taking all precautions necessary to prevent a diagnosis are worthwhile – aren’t they?

According to the National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute, approximately 4,030 women died from cervical cancer in 2013 while over 12,340 more were diagnosed. With a decreased incidence and death rate of nearly 50 percent over the past 30 years, cervical cancer is quickly becoming one of the more treatable cancers when caught early. While the disease is still a major health concern in the United States (U.S.) and around the world, this shift is resulting in cervical cancer’s recent and growing popularity in conversation becoming less about mortality rates and more about causes and potential prevention, specifically the human papillomavirus (HPV) and vaccines.

The first HPV vaccine was licensed in 2006 after research revealed that the majority of cervical cancers were caused by the virus. Initially, the messaging behind the vaccine was prevention of death from cervical cancer. However, as cure rates increase and national averages of incidence and deaths caused by cervical cancers decline, communication continues to adapt to include a variety of other reasons for getting the three-shot vaccination series. In addition to prevention, public health and consumer-facing messages have evolved to include the preservation of reproductive organs and the prevention of genital warts and other cancers caused by HPV such as, cancers of the anus, throat, reproductive organs, and some head and neck cancers.

Wrangling opinions and claims

The intricacies of the cervical cancer and HPV conversation touch on a variety of healthcare topics. Pro-vaccination arguments state that while cervical cancer is increasingly more curable, it still remains a deadly cancer with treatments that involve invasive surgeries and cause infertility. Anti-HPV vaccine arguments often surround the fear of an early onset of sexual activity among younger girls. Quickly becoming part of the anti-vaccine movement, the arguments for and against circulate measuring benefit vs. cost (risk).

HPV Vaccination Arguments

Against

For

  • The vaccine is unnecessary as incidence and mortality rates continue to decline
  • It encourages early onset of sexual activity
  • So few women get cancer that it’s not worth the cost of the vaccine
  • There are severe adverse side effects
  • This is a government-controlled vaccine to make money for the U.S.
  • It causes infertility
  • It only protects against four of the more than 100 types of HPV
  • Nearly 12,500 women are diagnosed annually resulting in over 4,000 deaths
  • The vaccine also prevents genital warts and other cancers
  • Safe sex practices should be taught in conjunction with vaccination
  • The vaccine costs less than cancer treatment 
  • Adverse side effect claims have not been substantiated with any research
  • The two cancer-causing HPV types targeted by the vaccine account for 70% of cervical cancers

Communication professionals are faced with the recurring challenge of creating persuasive, action-inciting programs to a wide range of audiences, combined with growing and ever-changing anti-campaigns that can host unsubstantiated or extreme claims that might be harmful to the message and the brands involved.

So how do we persuade these audiences into the action-driven goal of getting and supporting vaccinations?

  1. By looking at the habits of consumers in healthcare, the approach of communication can be strategically informed to prioritize audiences and messaging:
    Studies reveal that consumers put the most amount of weight on their physicians’ opinions and recommendations rather than marketing or published materials. Action-focused, physician-directed communication is a familiar challenge of communications and public relations professionals working within healthcare and pharmaceuticals.

  2. By developing issue-sensitive messaging to persuade consumers to trust unbranded communications:
    This tactic emphasizes the use of a physician-driven communication strategy to help personify clinical messaging and recommendations. Positioning physicians as vaccination advocates who debunk myths and quell fears is an effective solution to increase the acceptance of HPV and other controversial vaccines.

HPV vaccine access in a new age of American healthcare

As the healthcare landscape of the U.S. changes, so will the conversation surrounding HPV and other controversial vaccines. Recent years have reflected an increase in the overall anti-vaccine movement, where parents choose not to vaccinate their children from nearly eradicated diseases (e.g., whooping cough, measles, and mumps). As we enter an era of more accessible, low-cost, high-quality healthcare for all Americans, the HPV vaccine and coverage through the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) is sure to be discussed across the country. For now, the ACA provides coverage of many immunizations including the HPV vaccine.

To learn more about vaccination coverage through the ACA, read the ASPE Issue Brief or visit HealthCare.gov.