This site is intended for health professionals only

Armed against HPV

Last week the DH chose the vaccine to be used against HPV in a new national immunisation programme. Marilyn Eveleigh is disappointed with the decision, but not as much as she is regarding the advertising campaign

The vaccine, Cervarix, protects against two strains of the human papilloma virus [HPV], which causes 70% of cervical cancers. The immunisation will be offered to all 12-13-year-old females from September this year. The NHS will purchase the supplies from the pharmaceutical company and offer the vaccine free as part of a school immunisation programme.

Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer in the UK so this public health provision has got to be good news. However, there is a body of opinion that claims it would have been even better news if the vaccine supplied protected against not two, but four strains of the virus and offered the wider coverage against genital warts. 

Apparently the justification for selecting Cervarix, a GlaxoSmithKline product, as opposed to Gardasil, the Sanofi Pasteur MSD 4-strain vaccine, is made on evidence and scientific evaluation. But the UK is in the minority on this decision compared to most of the western European countries: New Zealand, Australia, the USA and Canada. The "cost is commercially sensitive" and is not being revealed.

I'm somewhat disappointed with the decision - but not as much as I am regarding the advertising campaign supporting public awareness and HPV vaccine uptake. The advertising campaign has a really upbeat message to "arm yourself against cervical cancer". But one poster depicts three teenage girls with this slogan apparently tattooed across their left deltoids! Yes, tattooed.

I say "apparently" because the spokesperson from the NHS Immunisation Information Team said: "The image tested well with mothers and they all assumed it was a transfer." Did they really? What did their daughters think, I wonder? Referring to the logo used "in a tattoo-like way on our publicity materials" the NHS spokesperson went on to say: "It is certainly not our intention to encourage tattooing (which, of course, is illegal in this age group), but to show that the injection is given in the upper arm and that having had the vaccination the girl is armed against cervical cancer."

It is a clever play on words - "arm yourself". Yet I queried at some length whether it was wise to use a tattoo image to carry the message. In my experience as a mother, an aunt, a friend and a nurse, there are number of potentially difficult tension points in the early years of a teenager girl/parent relationship. In no particular order, these include smoking, sex, drugs, alcohol, staying out, piercing - and tattoos. Many of you may have experienced first-hand the heated debates, slammed doors followed by sullen moods of daughters when these subjects are debated. Giving the impression of a tattoo being an appropriate and modern conveyor of a positive message may undermine parents guiding their children through the "tattoo or not to tattoo" dilemma. NHS tattoo associations are not helpful.
Maybe I'm making a mountain out of a molehill - and you and the rest of the world will think the logo is a harmless transfer that will wash off. I really want good public support and uptake for this vaccine - it is our investment in future generations.
Incidentally, pointing to the poster with the three girls displaying the “arm yourself against cervical cancer” logo, my teenage niece announced her mother "would not let her have that." "The vaccine or the tattoo," I asked. A very positive debate followed on the merits of immunisation and the transience of tattoos. The HPV publicity was a great catalyst. Try it out in your household.

Related article: DH awards contract for HPV vaccine