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UMD Leads Study on Improving HPV Vaccination Rates Among African-American Adolescents

April 30, 2018
Contacts: 

K. Lorraine Graham, 301-405-2782

COLLEGE PARK, Md. — The University of Maryland (UMD) has received a $2.2 million grant from the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health to develop effective communication strategies to improve human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination rates among African-American adolescents. 

HPV is the most commonly sexually transmitted infection in the United States. If left untreated, it can cause a variety of cancers, but it is easily prevented through a vaccination. The best time to be vaccinated is between ages 11 and 12, which means that the decision to vaccinate or not is made by parents or caregivers. 

“This vaccine is especially controversial because parents, regardless of race, fear it will encourage their children to become sexually active sooner—even though there is no evidence to support that concern,” said Xiaoli Nan, professor of communication in UMD’s College of Arts and Humanities and director of UMD’s Center for Health and Risk Communication.

Nan will lead a cross-disciplinary research team that includes co-investigators Cheryl Holt and Min Qi Wang from UMD’s School of Public Health and Shana Ntiri and Clement Adebamowo from the University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM). The team will develop and test communication strategies to encourage African-American parents to allow their children to receive the HPV vaccine. The study builds on research she began in 2011, which found that African-Americans’ historical mistrust of the medical community as well as negative views on vaccines partially contribute to the low vaccination rates.

"By bringing together an innovative team of investigators working across disciplinary boundaries and campuses, this ambitious project supports the goals of our strategic partnership with the University of Maryland, Baltimore,'" said Bonnie Thornton Dill, dean of the College of Arts and Humanities at UMD. "When communication scholars, public health experts and doctors from Maryland's most powerful public research institutions collaborate we can solve important health problems facing the state and the nation."

The research team will partner with several pediatric clinics in Baltimore to develop and test communication strategies to motivate the parents of African-American adolescents to allow their children to be vaccinated. Through focus groups and interviews, the team will learn more about the children who visit the clinics and their parents. This knowledge will help the researchers determine the best way to talk to individuals about the HPV vaccination. 

After creating and thoroughly testing several messages, they will determine which one is the most persuasive and how best to deliver it. Is it more persuasive for people to read a brochure on their own or to have a conversation with their pediatrician? Are parents more motivated by messages that talk about the positive benefits of getting the vaccine or the negative consequences of not getting it? These are the kinds of questions that the team will test and study.

"We are excited to expand our collaborative research with the University of Maryland through this project that is at the intersections of the humanities, public health and medicine,” said E. Albert Reece, executive vice president for medical affairs at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, John Z. and Akiko K. Bowers distinguished professor and dean of UMSOM. 

By using research methods that draw on the humanities, social sciences and medicine, the team will ultimately make evidence-based recommendations for doctors, nurses and public health officials about how to communicate with African-American parents about the HPV vaccine. 

Nan believes that understanding how we communicate with each other and what motivates us to take action is a key element of understanding human nature, and that knowledge can be harnessed to promote positive social change.

“Nearly 50 percent of cancer cases can be prevented through lifestyle changes,” says Nan. “Communication science is an interdisciplinary research practice that can promote positive changes in health behaviors and save lives.” 

Nan is an expert in health and risk communication, studying how communication strategies influence health-related decisions. Research shows that African-Americans are more likely to develop--and die from-- cancer than others, partly because they are less likely to have access to adequate care and often face racism when they do receive care. Her research focuses on cancer prevention in medically underserved communities where people do not have access to adequate healthcare because of social and economic inequalities.