Study aims to reduce HPV and COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy among teens in rural Alabama

Investigators are developing a telemedicine program to reduce vaccine hesitancy related to HPV and the novel coronavirus for adolescents in rural Alabama.

Editor's Note: The information published in this story is accurate at the time of publication. Always refer to for UAB's current guidelines and recommendations relating to COVID-19.

Henna Budhwani, Ph.D., a medical sociologist and an assistant professor at the UAB School of Public HealthHenna Budhwani, Ph.D., a medical sociologist and an assistant professor at the UAB School of Public Health and Tina Simpson, M.D., a pediatrician at UAB, are the co-principal investigators of the studyNationally, nearly half of adolescents are up to date on their human papillomavirus vaccines. However, in Alabama, only 20 percent of adolescents have received all doses of this vaccine. Moreover, in some of the state’s rural counties, HPV vaccination rates are as low as 9 percent.  

Identifying ways to encourage adolescents in rural communities to learn about and accept FDA-approved vaccines is the focus of a new study led by a researcher at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Henna Budhwani, Ph.D., a medical sociologist and an assistant professor at the UAB School of Public Health, has received a $300,000 grant from Merck, Sharp and Dohme, Corp. The money will be used to develop and test the feasibility and acceptability of a telemedicine (mHealth) intervention, to reduce vaccine hesitancy by increasing vaccine education and promote teens’ autonomy for their own health.

“Reducing vaccine hesitancy in the rural Deep South is a high-priority public health target,” Budhwani said. “Focusing on increasing HPV vaccine awareness and understanding the causes of COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy are urgently warranted, due to low rates of HPV vaccine that lead to high rates of preventable cancers, and high rates of COVID-19 that disproportionately affect African American populations.”

Budhwani and Tina Simpson, M.D., the study’s co-principal investigator and a professor in the Department of Pediatrics at UAB, are creating this mHealth intervention. 

“Adolescents in these rural communities are clinically underserved, and their parents may not know about the HPV vaccine or their child’s risk for developing cervical or oropharyngeal cancers,” Budhwani explained. “The few providers that work in rural communities are often so overburdened providing first-line care that they may not even offer the HPV vaccine.”

As part of this project, Budhwani and Simpson will conduct interviews with adolescents and their parents to better understand vaccine hesitancy related to COVID-19; this will enable Budhwani and Simpson to prepare high-impact messaging to spread information about the novel coronavirus vaccine when it becomes available.

“African American communities are disproportionately affected by COVID-19, and the same reasons underlying vaccine hesitancy related to the HPV vaccine have the potential to negatively influence the acceptance, uptake and confidence in a new novel coronavirus vaccine,” Budhwani said. “We anticipate that, through our study, we will improve participants’ knowledge of HPV and COVID-19, increase their understanding of the importance of vaccinations, and reduce stigmas associated with vaccination, COVID-19, HPV and cervical cancer.”

The study will begin in early 2021.