Young guys may think preventing HPV is ‘women’s work’

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Public messages have tended to reinforce perceptions that human papillomavirus, or HPV, was a “woman’s issue,” according to research on how gender affects perceptions of sexual health responsibilities.

“Women aren’t getting HPV by themselves, so where is it coming from?”

Maggie Pitts, an assistant professor in the University of Arizona’s department of communication, has studied the public messaging of pharmaceutical companies, specifically related to how such companies targeted their consumers.

Pitts and her collaborators presented findings on the perceptions college-age men hold about HPV at the National Communication Association’s recent annual convention in Philadelphia. Pitts and colleagues also published a related article earlier this year in Health Communication.

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The team involved 84 undergraduate or newly graduated men in the study. The team held focus groups in which the men were able to discuss their beliefs, attitudes, and values associated with HPV.

“Males are an important and overlooked population in HPV prevention,” Pitts says. “The more we see equality with HPV messages targeting both males and females, the better. That will help to prevent the spread of HPV and negative health consequences in the future.”

Pitts is also studying male perceptions about the HPV vaccine, and what barriers exist for getting it. “For years, professionals have said women are at high risk of getting HPV, but we can now protect them through the vaccine. But no one was thinking about the male role,” Pitts says.

“Women aren’t getting HPV by themselves, so where is it coming from? And the most likely answer was that it is coming from their male sexual partners,” she says.

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Asked about increasing HPV vaccination, she says: “People need to be able to make an informed decision—they need information, knowledge, expertise, opportunities to be able to make that decision. The most important thing that needs to happen is conversations between pre-teens, teenagers, parents, school boards, and physicians.”

Pitts says it is even more important to investigate perceptions around HPV because some physicians are still more likely to recommend the vaccine for females without giving consideration to males. She also points to vaccination completion rate data for adolescent girls, indicating that the rate is about 40 percent for girls and 22 percent for adolescent boys.

Based on her research, Pitts says most of the men involved in the study had heard of HPV, but most had no knowledge that there exists a vaccine against HPV that could prevent related cancers for males or females.

“They are living in this cultural discourse where they’re not expected to take responsibility for their own sexual health or their partner’s,” Pitts says. “So there’s this burden that mostly falls on women. Until we consider males an important role in partnered sexual health and assign them responsibility for their own health and their partner’s health then it’s never going to be equal.”

Source: Lilly Berkley for University of Arizona