How Dutch cancer campaigners saved HPV vaccine uptake

Gary Finnegan

Gary Finnegan

March 31st, 2021

Gary Finnegan

‘HPV vaccine rates fell below 50% in the Netherlands, prompting the Dutch Cancer Society to launch an award-winning online campaign ’

Every year, 900 Dutch women are diagnosed with cervical cancer. Almost 200 women die of the disease annually. The introduction of safe HPV vaccines, which prevent most cervical (and several other) cancers, more than a decade ago offered hope in the Netherlands and around the world. 

In fact, experts now believe Europe could ultimately eliminate cervical cancer. Where HPV vaccine uptake is high, rates of cancer-causing infections have plummeted promising far fewer cervical cancers in the years ahead. 

However, HPV vaccination programmes have been beset by crises of confidence in several countries, including Denmark, Ireland and Japan. Online misinformation has been a major problem: myths have circulated on social media while search engines have been found to lead parents towards unreliable websites. 

The Netherlands is not immune to the infodemic of anti-vaccine information. When rates of HPV vaccine uptake among adolescents sank to 48% in 2018, the Dutch Cancer Society (KWF) took action. 

The NGO’s initiative began with a deep analysis of the target audience, the concerns people have, and where they find health information. This allowed the Society to design a highly-targeted campaign using search engine optimisation and online advertising. 

‘Research shows that parents have questions about side effects or are concerned that they know too little about the vaccine, so they search online for answers,’says Eveline Wiegeraad, campaign coordinator at KWF. ‘Unfortunately, they find misinformation.’

The campaign used geotargeting – a way of directing online advertising based on people’s location – to reach the parents of children where HPV vaccine programmes were under way. Parents searching for information using Google or Facebook, perhaps after receiving an invitation to have their child vaccinated, would see stories and fact-based content from KWF. 

‘We wanted our message to have the right tone of voice, to use the right channels, and to reach the right target in the right region at the right moment,’ Wiegeraad says. Personal stories from other parents and women with cervical cancer played an important role in the campaign, illustrating the long-term effects of cancer, including on fertility. 

The results so far have been stellar, even if there is still some distance to go. ‘HPV vaccine uptake has increased from 48% to 72%,’ she says. ‘This is encouraging but we’re not there yet and will continue to optimise the campaign.’ 

EU prize

The campaign was one of three vaccination projects to scoop EU Health Awards at a virtual ceremony hosted by Stella Kyriakides, EU Commissioner responsible for Health. The Dutch project won third prize (€20,000) and praise from the Commissioner for building a campaign based on evidence. 

The 2nd prize of €30,000 went to the Polish Pharmaceutical Students’ Association (PPSA) for an awareness-raising campaign directed to secondary school students. The four-year initiative provided free, evidence-based information on vaccines to almost 1,800 students through workshops and social media platforms.  

Joanna Oberska of PPSA said the campaign also explained how anti-vaccine movements arise and encouraged young people to become advocates for public health, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The first prize (€50,000) was awarded to the Cyprus Association of Cancer Patients and Friends (PASYKAF) for its role in advocating for HPV vaccination for more than a decade. The organisation played a role in raising awareness of HPV-related cancers, the establishment of a school-based HPV vaccination programme in 2016, and its extension to boys in 2020. 

The jury praised the PASYKAF initiative for its longevity, good results, and widespread support among public and private stakeholders. PASYKAF CEO Nicolas Philippou said the campaign had achieved HPV vaccine uptake of 75% in Cyprus. The NGO will continue to lead a national effort for the elimination of HPV-related cancers by 2030. 

The three winning vaccine advocacy campaigns were joined by six separate healthy lifestyle projects created by European cities and schools as part of the annual EU Health Award. More than 100 entries were received and the top 3 in each category selected by an expert jury