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Connecting Science and Awareness to End HPV Cancer

Country United States of America
Date Posted May 2023
HPV Campaign Pavilion at IPVC 2023
HPV Campaign Pavilion at IPVC 2023

When the 35th International Papillomavirus Conference - IPVC 2023 took place in April in Washington DC, it offered IPVS and our campaign partners an excellent opportunity to profile the International HPV Awareness Day (IHAD) Campaign to an important and unique audience - the HPV experts.  The community of scientists, clinicians and public health professionals attending the conference share the same ultimate objective as the advocates devoted to raising public awareness and understanding about HPV: putting an end to HPV-related cancer.  

At the end of the opening ceremony, the One Less Worry Zumba song played to images from HPV awareness activities around the world This set the tone for a series of campaign-related activities that took place during the week. We put some questions to participants directly involved in promoting the campaign at IPVC 2023 to see how it went.

IPVC 2023 was the first conference where IHAD Campaign partners joined forces to exhibit together at the HPV Campaign Pavilion. IHAD Campaign Manager Anita Wiseman explained the goals behind this initiative.

HPV Campaign Pavilion

“Throughout the world, public awareness about HPV and its connection to cancer is unacceptably low. Campaigns like ours address this problem. Coming together at the HPV Campaign Pavilion provided a highly visible campaign-themed zone for partners and conference delegates to connect, forge and strengthen collaboration between science and advocacy. The goal was to get scientists and awareness advocates talking to each other. Both play a vital role in reaching the main objective – preventing HPV-cancer.”

Out of the network of 130 organizations, the following partners decided to give this new initiative a try:  

  • Cervivor – a HPV cancer patient advocacy organization
  • CHOP – Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Vaccine Education Center
  • GIAHC – Global initiative Against HPV Cancer
  • HPV Prevention & Control Board – an HPV policy advisory body
  • RRPF – Recurrent Respiratory Papillomatosis Foundation

The five IHAD partner organizations that exhibited at the Pavilion are actually very different from each other; yet they all share the objective of making people more aware about HPV and deepening their understanding of the virus. By banding together at the colorful HPV Campaign Pavilion, they were hard to miss.

This was a first - so we asked the exhibiting partners for feedback about their experience.

Dialogue Session 1 - How awareness campaigns advance health equity

Charlotte Moser, co-director of the Vaccine Education Center at CHOP this to say:

“IPVC 2023 offered a wonderful opportunity for the campaign partners to share space and build camaraderie in the pavilion. I appreciated being able to go into the sessions and hear the latest science, especially the vaccine efforts from different parts of the world. It was wonderful to have the opportunity to catch up with old friends and make new ones. We were excited to meet people from all around the globe who are focused on HPV cancer prevention.”

Dialogue Session 2 - Breaking down the stigma around HPV

Tamika Felder of Cervivor shared a similar experience:

“Team Cervivor made so many new connections, and we also reconnected with many we haven’t seen in so long. Exhibiting gave us a chance to make the patient voice “seen and heard” at the conference. Being there gave us an opportunity for others to learn about us and possible ways for us to connect and work together. We've already acted on some of those connections, and they will be speaking at a small retreat for cervical cancer survivors that we are hosting next week.”

It was important to observe how the HPV public awareness messages were received by IPVC attendees who are mainly there for the science.

There seemed to be a healthy level of curiosity from conference delegates. The HPV Campaign Pavilion had a lot of visitors, and the two informal coffee-break Dialogue Sessions drew good attendance. Panelists discussed how to break down stigma to make it easier to talk about HPV and increase our impact to reach more people. We also had great panelists to listen to, which helped. We probably needed more time in order to make it as interactive as we had intended, though. The coffee breaks were just a bit too short.

Panelist Lillian Kreppel from HPV Cancers Alliance remarked, “It was really cool to engage with scientists and have them interested in what I (an HPV cancer thriver) had to say. By talking to each other, the science also gets easier to understand.”

Prof. Dr. YL Woo commented, “While this is a new initiative for IPVC, such dialogues are important and can grow. We have seen the importance of such advocacy dialogues in other major conferences such UICC and IAS involving high profile individuals. To me, advocacy and dialogues are central in advancing policies and progress in healthcare. Unique voices from different parts of the world are synchronized into a strong message. For IPVC 2023, the dialogue sessions were a very good start! In future conferences, I hope that we can include journalists, scientists, and researchers in the conversations. There really is a lot to be gained.”

There was a plenary session about the IHAD campaign during the scientific program itself: The International HPV Awareness Campaign – Purpose & Progress, hosted by Dr. Joel Palefsky, Chair of the IPVS Advocacy Campaign Committee. Dr. Palefsky spoke about the One Less Worry theme driving the campaign and the most recent impact from activities around the world around March 4th, 2023. He was joined by a special guest speaker, who definitely added glamour to the presentation.

Marcia Cross talks about connecting HPV advocacy and science

Emmy-nominated American actress Marcia Cross, co-founder of HPV Cancers Alliance, joined Dr. Palefsky to talk about why awareness campaigns like IHAD are important, and the reasons that her organization has partnered with IPVS. Marcia’s connection is personal - she spoke to the doctors and scientists in the room as an HPV-cancer thriver.

Dr. Aimee Kreimer, Cancer Epidemiologist at NCI had this question for Marcia: “So you’re speaking to a room of researchers, we talk numbers all day long, it’s our passion. What would you (an HPV awareness advocate) like us to do? How can we partner with you more? How can scientists help get the message out better?”

Marcia answered, “Please keep doing what you’re doing. Research is the most valuable thing. I think it’s useful though, when researchers and advocates talk to each other like we’re doing now. Together we become better at breaking down the science into understandable messages to share with the public and other stakeholder groups who are not medical experts or scientists. And in turn, we advocates can share real stories from people impacted by the cancers we’re working to eliminate. There are real people that need you.” 

By the end of the week, the question ‘Why are awareness campaigns an important part of preventing HPV-related cancer?’ was well answered from various stakeholder groups. Paul Bloem, Senior Officer of Immunization & Adolescent Health at WHO put it this way:

“Why would a young girl get a vaccine against an infection she has never heard of? And why would parents allow their children to be vaccinated against HPV if most have never heard about the virus and don’t understand the connection with cancer? Let’s build awareness as a key step to improve the uptake of HPV vaccines.”

The extra effort made to get HPV scientists and awareness advocates talking to each other face-to-face at IPVC 2023 has already more than paid off.  We’re inspired to keep the conversation going at IPVC 2024 in Edinburgh, Scotland.

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