Indiana University Kokomo

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KOKOMO, Ind. — A partnership between health sciences students and a local health organization has created an opportunity for parents to become more educated on a virus that can cause cancer.

Indiana University Kokomo

Students in Jessica Henderson's Henderson's Promoting Health Behaviors class at Indiana University Kokomo researched the human papillomavirus (HPV), which causes the majority of cervical cancers. They developed educational brochures, posters, and other materials for the Howard County Health Department, and then tested their effectiveness to more than 200 people.

Student Sarah Brown said students worked hard on researching, because it is important to present fact-based information, to dispel myths about vaccinations. The HPV vaccine has met some resistance, because it is for a sexually transmitted disease.

"We wanted parents to understand, this is the most studied vaccine ever, and it's safe for your child," she said. "We have to change parents' beliefs, so they understand that vaccines protect, not harm."

Adriana Sanchez, whose group created materials in both Spanish and English, was surprised by how little information is widely available about the vaccine.

"We didn't know there were so many people out there unaware of it," she said. "We know at least one person who looked at our materials and then took her son for his first dose of the vaccine."

Henderson said their work is important, because Howard County's HPV vaccination rate is below the national average. It gave students a chance to be health educators, and to make a difference in their community, using knowledge and skills gained in their health sciences classes. The health department benefitted with high-quality educational materials.

"In the short term, higher HPV vaccination rates will lower the number of HPV infections in the community," she said. "Long term, it also will lower HPV-related cancer rates in the future."

Henderson said both the health department and the students benefit from the project.

"The students became more familiar with public health agencies, and had an opportunity to work on a real life project, which has the benefit to be used in the community," she said. "The Howard County Health Department and the Indiana Immunization Coalition benefitted from the student' specific range of knowledge, and creative skills, to create messages for health officials and parents of teens and young adults."

Each group focused on a target market — parents of boys, parents of girls, parents of teens, and Spanish speaking parents, for example — and developed materials for their audience. The 25 students test marketed the materials to more than 200 people, representing their targets, and made adjustments based on their responses.

Renee Canady was amazed by some of the reactions.

"I talked to one mother who is totally against this vaccine, because it is for a sexually transmitted disease," she said, adding that she hopes she influenced that mother to change her mind by reminding her that 50,000 girls today will develop cervical cancer in their lifetimes. This vaccine provides protection.

The groups focusing on boys used sports-related themes, with slogans like "Guard your Guy," with a football logo, and "Take the Shot," which used IU Kokomo basketball player Aaron Knupp as its face. They were surprised that so few people — including clinicians — knew that the HPV vaccine is recommended for boys.

While men cannot get cervical cancer if they contract HPV, they can pass the virus to a female partner, who could then get cervical cancer.

"When it comes to HPV, females are only half the equation," said student Don Davidson. "Protecting males also protects females."

After completing their projects, the students, who worked in groups, presented their materials to Jennifer Sexton and Karen Long, both from the Howard County Health Department, and Lori Lovett, from the Indiana Immunization Coalition.

Sexton appreciates having factual, well-researched materials available.

"We have to get past people thinking 'sexually transmitted disease,' and thinking of cancer prevention," she said. "We will definitely be able to use these materials."

Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.