Local high school students boost cancer-preventing vaccinations for HPV

Cleveland HS champions tabling at the Gates Foundation Teen Action Fair in March 2019

High school students from across King County are carrying a powerful health message to their peers. They are talking about human papillomavirus (HPV), the cancers it can cause, and why it is so important for teens to get vaccinated against HPV.

The HPV Vaccine Champion Summit, recently hosted by Public Health – Seattle & King County, convened nearly 50 students from 10 high schools to be trained as peer educators. This summit is part of a county-wide HPV vaccine promotion project to engage students from Shoreline to Auburn in teaching teens about HPV vaccination. Since the project began in 2015 with funding from the Group Health Foundation, over 90 students have been trained as peer educators, and their work has increased HPV vaccination rates at school-based health centers in participating schools.

“Many decisions about adolescent health get made without young people at the table. Our project is trying to change that,” said Emma McVeigh, manager for the HPV vaccine promotion project. “This project is an opportunity for us to work with young people as partners in promoting their health and well-being.” 

What is HPV and why is the vaccine important?

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States, and represents the second highest cost burden among STDs on the United States medical system. While HPV is commonly known to cause genital warts, certain strains of the virus can also lead to cervical, anal, oropharyngeal, vaginal, vulvar, and penile cancers. Each year in the United States, HPV causes about 44,000 cases of cancer. In King County alone, more than 400 individuals are diagnosed with HPV-related cancers each year. 

The good news: there’s a vaccine that can prevent HPV infection, reducing the significant health impacts and suffering that is caused by HPV-related cancers. But, while there’s an effective vaccine, vaccination rates are lower than we need them to be. In Washington state in 2017, only 55.2% of 13 to 17-year-olds were up to date on HPV vaccination, meaning they started and completed the HPV vaccine series.

A peer-led campaign to increase vaccine uptake

The purpose of the HPV vaccine promotion project, also known as the HPV campaign, is to help boost those rates by working with young people to deliver a peer prevention message: get vaccinated now  and prevent life-threatening health conditions later in life. Working with local School-Based Health Centers and Public Health – Seattle & King County Family Planning Teen Clinics, student champions learn about HPV and develop activities to draw awareness among their peers.

These activities vary widely between schools, but have included organizing lunchtime tabling events, movie nights, basketball game halftime shows, overhead announcements, and presentations at student conferences and PTSA meetings. Students involved in the campaign earn community service hours, health education and community organizing experience, and much-needed snacks after a long school day. Some groups are as small as three students, while others are as large as fifteen.

This peer-led approach is showing results. A recent evaluation of the program found that HPV vaccine uptake was 19% higher among school-based health center patients in schools with campaigns compared to schools without campaigns. 

Youth as decision-makers

Building on its successes, the HPV campaign is involving young people more deeply by giving them new opportunities for decision making. At this year’s Champion Summit, students were on the Planning Council for the event, and created the agenda based on the skills and activities they thought would be most relevant and helpful for their growth in the project.

“I like being in the leadership role,” one student champion said. “I love organizing and being in charge, and we all got to share this role.”

At the summit, students learned community organizing skills, planned campaign strategies for this school year, freshened up on their HPV knowledge base, and spoke with local professionals about using their volunteer experience as a gateway to future career opportunities.

“I knew I was interested in healthcare, but I didn’t know about all of the options and choices,” said a student champion from Renton High School. “I feel like this campaign showed me a different side of public health that I wouldn’t have gotten exposed to anywhere else.”

Expansion plans

King County Executive Dow Constantine has included funding in his 2019 supplemental budget to expand HPV prevention efforts. Added at the request of King County Council Chair Rod Dembowski, the funding, if approved by the council, would include expansion of the HPV campaign from 15 to 21 King County high schools by the end of the 2019-2020 academic school year.   

Originally published on 11/12/19