Did COVID-19 change parents’ awareness of vaccine-preventable diseases? Did the pandemic make them more likely to ask their doctor about vaccination? What does the public know about the link between human papilloma viruses (HPV) and cancer ‒ and the potential to protect against disease through vaccination?
These were among the questions put to more than 7,000 parents as part of an eight-country online survey of parents. The research, conducted by IPSOS and commissioned by MSD, explored the knowledge and opinions of parents in Germany, France, Italy, Austria, Portugal, Romania, Sweden and Slovenia.
- 73% of parents are aware of HPV
- 1 in 5 of those who are aware of HPV do not know it can cause cancer
- 61% feel more knowledgeable about vaccination following the pandemic
- 90% believe it is important for their children to be vaccinated against diseases other than COVID-19
- 43% feel overwhelmed by vaccine-related information
While uptake of COVID-19 vaccines among children has been lower than in the adult population, the pandemic has led nine out of 10 parents to view routine childhood immunisations as important.
A strong majority (68%) of parents who responded to the survey said they are now more likely to ensure their child is vaccinated, with 65% saying they are more likely to proactively ask their doctor about vaccines for diseases other than COVID-19.
Too much information?
The pandemic has seen a strong increase in vaccine-related conversations, with unprecedented communication efforts from health authorities, academics, healthcare providers and industry. At the same time, there has been a significant rise in the level of vaccine misinformation, particularly on social media.
This has combined to leave some parents experiencing information overload. 49% said there is ‘too much information regarding vaccinations available now due to COVID-19’, while 43% felt ‘overwhelmed’.
Esra Urkmez of ENGAGe, the European Network of Gynaecological Cancer Advocacy Groups, encouraged parents to use reliable sources, such as the WHO, when researching vaccination.
‘As a mother, I know that all parents simply want what is best for their children. That is why it is so important for us to do our own research, and that we get the correct information we need to help us make informed and empowered decisions relating to the health of our loved ones and the prevention of certain diseases and cancers,’ she said.
‘However, over the last two years, it has become increasingly difficult for parents to navigate vast, and complex amounts of information relating to vaccines because of the COVID-19 pandemic.’ Urkmez said proactively discussing topics such as HPV vaccination with a healthcare professional is vital before deciding to vaccinate.
‘It is important that parents feel assured and knowledgeable that something like the HPV vaccine is not new and has been comprehensively studied and researched,’ she said. ‘If anyone is unsure, they should simply speak with their healthcare professional to get more information on how they can prevent certain cancers, in men and women.’
Eliminating cervical cancer
The survey put the spotlight on parental knowledge of human papillomaviruses (HPV) ‒ the cause of almost all cervical cancer, and a cause of multiple other infectious conditions in men and women.
Almost three quarters (73%) of parents said they were aware of HPV, but only half of those (55%) said they felt knowledgeable about it. And, even among those who are aware of HPV, less than half (48%) knew that it caused illness in men and women.
Europe aims to eliminate cervical cancer through vaccination, screening and testing, making it essential that HPV awareness and vaccine uptake are increased. With several European countries offering HPV vaccines to girls only, experts said girls and boys should have access to protection. Catalonia has become the latest region to add HPV vaccination of adolescent boys to their vaccine schedule.
Speaking at the launch of the survey results, Dr Xavier Bosch, Catalan Institute of Oncology, said the findings point to increased awareness of HPV, but he called for greater efforts to get routine immunisation back on track.
‘The research shows positive insights into the increased awareness levels of HPV among parents across Europe,’ he said. ‘However, there is still more work to be done to reprioritise the general immunisation and screening programmes, along with further efforts to prevent the spread of HPV and potential growth in the prevalence of cancer-causing HPV.’
The new EU Joint Action on HPV Vaccination, which is part of the Europe Beating Cancer Plan, aims to ensure 90% of girls are vaccinated against HPV by the age of 15, and will support a significant increase in the vaccination of boys. This could add momentum to the drive to wipe out cervical cancer in Europe ‒ something Australia, an early adopter of HPV vaccines, expects to achieve within 20 years.