Remembering Professor Jane Wardle – Part 3 – Psychological and behavioural implications of the link between HPV and cancer
By Alice Forster, on 10 January 2016
This third post in our series on the contribution that Professor Jane Wardle made to cancer behavioural science discusses the human papillomavirus (HPV or cervical cancer) vaccine and HPV testing written by Dr Alice Forster and Dr Jo Waller.
In 1976, Harald zur Hausen discovered that human papillomavirus (HPV) plays an essential causal role in the development of cervical cancer (he later won the Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2008 for this work). HPV can also cause cancers of the vagina, vulva, penis, anus and mouth and throat and is transmitted by skin to skin contact (usually sexual contact with cervical cancer). zur Hausen’s discovery made possible the development of technology to test for HPV, and this test is now used in the NHS cervical screening programme. Jane and colleagues realised that testing for a sexually transmitted infection in the cancer screening context might cause some women confusion and anxiety. They conducted work exploring the psychological impact of women testing positive for HPV, finding raised concerns about fidelity and blame and increased anxiety and distress. The work had implications for the kind of information women are given about HPV when they take part in screening.
Another implication of zur Hausen’s discovery was the development in the late 1990s and early 2000s of vaccines that protect against the two types of HPV that cause most cervical cancers. Jane recognised, based on her work on HPV testing, that vaccinating young girls against HPV, a sexually transmitted infection, could be controversial for some and sought to understand the potential acceptability of HPV vaccines.
One of Jane’s key studies in this area was conducted in 2005 before the HPV vaccine was licensed. The study aimed to explore mothers’ responses to information about the HPV vaccine. Jane and colleagues conducted a focus group study with 24 mothers of 8 to 14 year old daughters. The study found that most mothers were keen to prevent their daughters from developing cervical cancer, but they also had reservations about the safety and possible side-effects of the vaccine. Many mothers wanted to talk to their daughter about the vaccine and felt that this would be difficult if the vaccine was given to young children. Some felt that girls younger than 10 or 11 would not have had much, if any sex education and so discussing a sexually transmitted infection with them would be tricky. Others did not want to think about their daughter being sexually active and for this reason felt that they could not consider giving the vaccine to a 9 year old.
“They’re innocent at 9. They don’t do things like that.”
“It’s not thinkable is it, your 9-year-old doing anything like that?”
Parents also expressed fear that HPV vaccination might be seen by girls as consent to be sexually active or fear that girls would misinterpret HPV vaccination as protection against sexually transmitted infections in general. Earlier work conducted by Jane and colleagues suggested that around a quarter of mothers and girls themselves believed that girls would be more likely to have sex or unprotected sex following HPV vaccination. However, reassuringly, in the first longitudinal study to look at whether girls’ sexual behaviour changed following HPV vaccination, we were able to show that vaccinated girls were no more likely to have become sexually active after vaccination (compared to girls who did not get the vaccine), to have increased their number of sexual partners or to have changed how consistently they used condoms.
At the time of Jane’s initial research in this area, she and her team were one of only a handful of research groups internationally who were investigating the behavioural side of HPV vaccination and testing. Today, researchers across the world are applying behavioural science to understand how to maximise uptake of HPV vaccination in their own countries and to minimise the negative psychological consequences, and maximise the acceptability, of HPV testing. The work in our group continues, with projects aimed at understanding ethnic differences in uptake of HPV vaccination, exploring the psychological impact of primary HPV testing, and examining psychological responses to an HPV diagnosis in patients with head and neck cancer.
Jane’s work paved the way for the introduction of the HPV vaccine in the UK in 2008, by helping immunisation programme coordinators anticipate its acceptability among parents. Jane’s finding that the HPV vaccine might not be acceptable to mothers if it were offered to girls younger than 11 informed the UK government’s decision to recommend the vaccine for 12 and 13 year olds. Today, almost 90% of 12 and 13 year old girls in England get the HPV vaccine, and with it protection against HPV-related cancers.