May 09, 2016
Maggie Rotermund

Med Student Explores Why Missouri Has Low HPV Vaccination Rates

Why don't Missouri parents get their children vaccinated against human papillomavirus? Betty Chen, a third-year student at Saint Louis University School of Medicine, wanted to know what made Missouri's vaccine rates so low compared with other U.S. states.

Betty Chen
Betty Chen, a third-year medical student, was recently awarded the 2016 Alpha Omega Alpha Carolyn L. Kuckein Student Research Fellowship, She is pictured with her faculty mentor, Nosayaba Osazuwa-Peters, BDS, MPH.   Photo by Ellen Hutti.  

Chen was recently awarded the 2016 Alpha Omega Alpha Carolyn L. Kuckein Student Research Fellowship to research how much school age children, parents and teachers in the St. Louis area know about human papilloma virus (HPV).

She received confirmation of her award April 15.

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States, known to cause cancers of the cervix, anus, head and neck. There are currently three different HPV vaccines on the market that have been proven to protect against the main HPV strains that cause the majority of HPV-associated cancers. 

In Missouri, only 28.3 percent of girls and 11.3 percent of boys have received at least one dose of the HPV vaccine series - leaving a large number of young people vulnerable to HPV infection and potential future development of HPV-associated cervical and oropharyngeal cancers.

"I've been working with Nosayaba Osazuwa-Peters, BDS, MPH, CHES, assistant professor of otolaryngology, on HPV in the young adult populations since my first year at SLU and we wanted to look at a different population," she said. "Knowing the success rate of the HPV vaccine, I wanted to look at what the barriers to vaccination really are."

Osazuwa-Peters is an oral cancer researcher at the SLU Cancer Center and Chen's faculty mentor.

Chen's project will send questionnaires to vaccine-eligible students in St. Louis area school districts. The surveys will be adapted to the appropriate reading level for students.

Surveys targeted at parents and school staff also will be sent out.

"The project will help us determine where the baseline is," Chen said. "The next step will be to implement an education plan based on those results."

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has a goal (Healthy People 2020) to increase HPV vaccination rates for 13-15 year olds across the country to 80 percent by the year 2020.

"Going by the current HPV vaccine rates in Missouri, it is obvious that a lot of education and awareness needs to be provided to increase the current abysmally low vaccination rates in the state," Chen said.

She plans to start sending out the questionnaires in September when the school year begins.

"I'm expecting that we will see some knowledge about the connection between HPV and cervical cancer, but I would guess that the connection to head and neck cancers is not well known," Chen said.

Chen hopes to further her research by looking at whether the benefits of vaccination were being discussed by pediatricians and other medical personnel that may have contact with pre-teens and teenagers.

She wants to pursue a career as a physician-scientist in otolaryngology and is interested in continuing her research in head and neck cancers associated with HPV.

Chen is not the first SLU student to receive this award. In 2014, Peter Ireland received the Carolyn L. Kuckein Student Research Fellowship to study chemical compounds that inhibit viruses that cause herpes infections, critical information to potentially develop a clinical treatment for the virus.

Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society, a professional medical organization, recognizes and advocates for excellence in scholarship and the highest ideals in the profession of medicine. The AOA chapter at Saint Louis University was founded in 1924. Matthew Broom, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics and L. James Willmore, M.D., associate dean of the School of Medicine, currently serve as SLU's AOA co-councilors.

Established in 1836, Saint Louis University School of Medicine has the distinction of awarding the first medical degree west of the Mississippi River. The school educates physicians and biomedical scientists, conducts medical research, and provides health care on a local, national and international level. Research at the school seeks new cures and treatments in five key areas: cancer, infectious disease, liver disease, aging and brain disease and heart/lung disease.

Higher purpose. Greater good.
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