It’s easy to turn heads when you use terms like “penile cancer.” Tell students that one STD can cause penile, anal, cervical, vaginal, oral and neck cancers, and you’ll have even more cringing faces. This dangerous STD is the Human papillomavirus (HPV), and a recent student survey shows that many students do not know basic facts about the disease.
A team of UC Davis undergraduates participating in the Davis Honors Challenge found that though roughly 77 percent of students are sexually active, 13 percent had never heard of HPV. The researchers saw this lack of education as a major problem since 50 percent of people will contract HPV during their lifetime.
“What surprised me was how much of the student population had not been educated,” said Sara Watson, a junior genetics major and researcher on the project.
The students surveyed 210 men and 298 women on campus. Students were asked yes/no questions, and then polled on whether they had received the HPV vaccine.
“Only four questions had 60 percent or more [students] that got the question correct,” said Watson.
When asked if HPV can cause genital herpes (it can) only 27 percent knew the right answer. Only 32 percent of students knew that HPV can cause genital warts, and just 42 percent knew that HPV can cause serious health problems for men.
“It’s weird that people thought there was an STD that only affected girls,” said Taylour Munro, a junior biological sciences major and co-researcher.
Indeed, only 34 percent of students knew that HPV is a risk factor for penile and anal cancers.
Munro and Watson believe some of the confusion over whether men can get the disease is due to the development process of products like Gardasil, one of two commercially available HPV vaccines. Because cervical cancer is the most common cancer associated with HPV, drug studies originally included only women.
“They did not know that men could get symptoms,” Watson said.
The FDA did not approve Gardasil for men until 2009, and it has not been widely promoted. In the undergraduate survey, only 35 percent knew that both women and men could get the vaccination.
To educate students about the risks of HPV, Munro and Watson plan to work with the Health Education and Promotion office – the same service that runs the Love Lab – to create gender-neutral brochures. Munro said she was bothered by the current educational brochures, which feature pictures of flowers and a girl standing with a hand on her hip.
While researching the HPV vaccine, Munro and Watson ran across a fact they found surprising: the Student Health Insurance Plan (SHIP) does not pay for the vaccine.
Chuck Auchterlonie, business services manager for Student Health Services, said that students can get the vaccine at the Cowell Student Health Center, but they have to pay for injections themselves. The vaccine requires three shots, each costing $150. Add in three $15 office visits, and the vaccine total is $495.
“It’s really a shame that it’s not covered,” Munro said.
Auchterlonie explained the process for adding benefits to SHIP: departments on campus choose student representatives to serve with administrators on the SHIP committee. These students propose certain benefits and then SHIP officials check with the larger insurance provider to see how much premium costs would increase. The student representatives then vote on whether to add the benefit.
“In the last two years, [HPV] hasn’t been raised as a specific issue by committee members,” Auchterlonie said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people get the vaccine before their teenage years. Both boys and girls can get the vaccine starting at age nine, though the optimum time is between ages 11 and 12. Because the vaccine was not approved until 2006, the CDC recommends that people between 13 and 26 still make sure they get it.
While SHIP does not cover the vaccine for undergraduates, graduate students have vaccine coverage under GSHIP. Auchterlonie said that SHIP coverage for undergraduates is a possibility for the future.
“It certainly make sense – it’s medically appropriate to have the vaccine,” Auchterlonie said.
Despite the cost, Munro and Watson encourage all students to get vaccinated. According to their survey, 49 percent of students were still not protected.
MADELINE McCURRY-SCHMIDT can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction – March 9, 2011: The writer incorrectly stated that HPV causes genital herpes. HPV can cause genital warts, not herpes. The Aggie regrets the error.