Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the United States with about 80 million people being infected. The prevalence of HPV is specifically a concern amongst college campuses due to the majority of infections occurring in one’s late teens or early twenties. It is no surprise that college students are typically sexually active, but the medical community has found that almost all sexually active adults will become infected with HPV at some point in their lives. So how do we work to monitor for symptoms to slow transmission?
HPV Prevention – Why It Matters
Well unfortunately, the solution is not that clear, as most people who become infected show no symptoms! Since many infected individuals are asymptomatic, this creates quite the challenge for us to prevent the spread and control the disease. Fortunately, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that 9 out of 10 HPV infections will spontaneously resolve on their own over the course of two years. With that said, the cause for concern we may have around HPV seems to decrease as we know it will likely go away on its own. But what about the individuals who do not have cases that spontaneously resolve? The HPV that does not resolve can be life threatening and lead to genital warts and cancers such as cervical cancer, which is why we must take the proper steps in prevention. Furthermore, there is no clear understanding as to why individuals infected with HPV will later develop cancer and who will not, and it can take years for the cancer to develop following an HPV infection. Despite the prevalence and high infection rate, we can work to take control to avoid HPV and the risky health problems associated with it. The CDC recommends practicing safe sex, getting screened, and getting vaccinated as the best possible solutions for us to protect ourselves against infection. With the significant impact that HPV has on the young adult population, we must spread awareness and educate sexually active adults so we can help them to take the proper measures to stay safe. Since many young and sexually active adults are students, college campuses are a great place to start spreading awareness.
STI Awareness on Campus
STI awareness on college campuses has long been a topic of discussion as most college students are sexually active adults. Since HPV is the most common STI and poses a significant risk of long-term health issues, college campuses should address this issue and work to educate their young students. Think back to when you were a young college student. With so many new and exciting opportunities, the choices you made were probably not always in alignment with the best interests of your future self. Since HPV can pose no immediate threat and the life-threatening complications can take some time to arise, it is probable to assume that most college students are not considering the long-term health risks that HPV poses. HPV has been shown to cause a variety of different types of cancer including cervical, penile, vaginal, oropharyngeal (throat), and anal cancers which can be life threatening. While these cancers may not develop right away, they are alarming enough to make students aware as to why they should take the proper precautions to protect themselves from infection. So, what can young students do to protect themselves?
HPV Vaccine Efficacy
Fortunately, there is a highly effective HPV vaccine available that has demonstrated a 96.7% efficacy. While this vaccine has proven to be safe and effective, uptake of the vaccine in the United States has remained poor. The low rate of vaccination leaves us wondering if there is a lack of understanding surrounding HPV amongst the young adult population. To address this issue, let’s explore how the conversation around HPV awareness has been presented to college students on campus.
In a study that examined the awareness surrounding HPV amongst 212 Los Angeles college students, researchers found that nearly two-thirds of male college students and just over half of the female students were unaware that the HPV vaccine is recommended through the age of 26. Additionally, 47.6% of college students did not know that the HPV vaccine is available at their college student health center or accessible health clinics. With these high rates of students unaware of the vaccine, we may be wondering if college campuses are even taking the initiatives to promote the HPV vaccination.
With the recent global pandemic, it seems that college health centers have been predominantly focused on limiting the spread of the COVID-19 virus, causing them to put more effort into promoting the COVID vaccine. College health centers were needing to make COVID-19 awareness and vaccination their number one priority in order to stop the spread and keep campuses open. Due to the heightened attention and emphasis on COVID safety protocols and the emergency vaccine, we have seen a decrease in discussion regarding the risk of HPV infection and the vaccination against it.
Steps to Take Moving Forward
It is important for college campuses to ensure awareness among college students when it comes to HPV. Education is especially critical since HPV is so prevalent in the United States and we see young adults typically become infected in their late teens or early twenties. With the risk of potential health complications that could arise later, early awareness is key to prevention. Campus wide campaigns presented to students about the spread of HPV and the efficacy of the vaccine could help prevent infection and later complications. When asked, college students stated that they would prefer learning about the spread of HPV through educational YouTube videos or digital infographics shared on social media such as Instagram. It’s important for us to understand how these students will best be made aware of the disease. With proper education and awareness, it is possible for us to decrease the prevalence of HPV and promote vaccination to keep everyone safe.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, April 12). Std Facts – Human papillomavirus (HPV). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/std/hpv/stdfact-hpv.htm#:~:text=In%20most%20cases%20(9%20out,bumps%20in%20the%20genital%20area.
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Koskan A, Cantley A, Li R, Silvestro K, Helitzer D. College Students’ Digital Media Preferences for future HPV Vaccine Campaigns. J Cancer Educ. 2022 Dec;37(6):1743-1751. doi: 10.1007/s13187-021-02022-1. Epub 2021 May 2. PMID: 33934288; PMCID: PMC8088485.