By Yvette Cijntje, for the Ocan Foundation
HPV, short for the Human Papillomavirus, is a common sexually transmitted disease, or STD. In the Netherlands, eight out of 10 people will become infected with HPV at one or more times in their lives. Usually, the body itself clears the virus; but in some cases, the infection can lead to cancer. Almost all cervical cancers in women are caused by HPV.
HPV also plays a role in various other forms of cancer, such as cancer of the penis in men, cancer of the labia in woman and cancer of the mouth and throat. Despite these serious, possible consequences of an infection with HPV, many people – both young and old – know little or nothing about it. And the number of infections is increasing.
That is why an RIVM (Netherlands Institute for Public Health and the Environment) campaign is now underway in the Netherlands, to inform young people ages 18 to 27 about HPV. The campaign aims to motivate young people to get vaccinated against HPV. The vaccination is free.
Under the motto “LEVEL UP!”, Ocan is working on its own campaign, aimed at young people with a Caribbean or other background. Several Caribbean youths and parents have followed a training course to inform young adults in the Netherlands about HPV and about the vaccination campaign.
In a six-part series of articles, attention is paid to this campaign. In this first part is an interview with several ambassadors of the campaign.
Gilberto Morishaw (28) works for a climate technology company and is chairman of the Supervisory Board of Ocan. Myesha Marlin (22) is a Social Work student and helps as a volunteer to answer questions from youth who come from the Caribbean to the Netherlands. These questions can be about housing and registration with the municipality, for example. Onira Severina (38) works at a community centre where she provides digital skills trainings. She is a board member of SPLIKA, a foundation which is committed to the recognition of Papiamento, among other things.
What did they know about HPV before they followed the training to provide information as part of the LEVEL UP! campaign?
Gilberto: “I knew something about it. Years ago, it was news that women could get cervical cancer after being infected. In the US, they started vaccinating against the Papillomavirus. I knew that HPV increases the risk of getting cancer. I also knew that many people carry the virus, but are unaware of it. You won’t feel sick. But I didn’t know there are so many different types of HP viruses.”
Onira first heard about the risk of cervical cancer after an HPV infection when she received an invitation to be tested, as part of the population screening, just before she turned 30. Her first reaction was: “What is this?” she says: “I folded the letter back in the envelope and placed it in a drawer; but eventually I did get the test at the insistence of the people surrounding me.
To be honest, I never researched information on HP viruses until I attended the training meeting from Ocan. Even though I went to the doctor twice to get the population screening. I just knew very little about it. My GP has not stated the importance of informing yourself about the virus. But I am glad I know more about it now.”
Myesha also knew little or nothing about HPV when she received the letter from the RIVM. “The letter said that you could get the vaccination for free, and I thought: ‘Oh there is another vaccination, we’ll see’ and put the letter away. I didn’t do anything with it until Ocan approached me to become an ambassador. During the first meeting, we received so much information that I became more aware of how important it is to educate yourself about HPV. If you want to inform young people as an ambassador, then you have to be well informed yourself. By then, I had also got my vaccination. Yes, it’s a must!”
The ambassadors consider it quite challenging to talk to Caribbean youth about a subject such as HPV. When you talk about sexually transmitted diseases like HPV, you are automatically talking about sex; and that is a subject that is not always easy to openly talk about.
Gilberto: “I can’t speak for everyone, but when I look at the people around me, I notice that people are not concerned with these kinds of topics. It doesn’t really affect them. They think: ‘Come what may.’ They see these kinds of campaigns as something that is far from their reality. There already is a taboo to talk about these topics – and on top of that, Caribbean youth are known to not talk about topics that are in the news.”
Onira: “The conviction that STDs are something that ‘bad, dissolute people’ have is widely spread. Nice people don’t get that. I often hear people say: ‘We didn’t have these kinds of diseases before’. While I think that this kind of disease most likely existed in the past, but just didn’t have a name back then – and they probably didn’t talk about it either. In my experience, Caribbean people have a hard time talking about uncomfortable topics because of all the moral ‘states’ they associate with sexuality. For example, which 50-year-old woman is going to admit that she does not know what her vagina looks like?”
Myesha looks at this differently. “This is a different generation, which can talk about these kinds of topics. I ask my grandmother a lot, like: ‘What did you used to do?’ It can be a bit awkward, but I’ll try anyway. That’s how I found out that my grandmother got pregnant before she got married. And then I said to her, ‘Grandma, you were pregnant when you got married and you didn’t let me do it before marriage.’ And then she said, ‘Yes, but that was the reason I had to get married.’ It’s all about trust. Little by little, I try to make her feel more comfortable to talk about these kinds of topics.”
The ambassadors of the LEVEL UP! campaign will soon be starting the conversation about HPV with young people. Most important to them is that young people should inform themselves as much as possible on the subject of HPV. That’s the only way they can make an informed decision whether or not to get vaccinated.
Gilberto: “It is not only of importance for women; it is also about lowering the risk of cancer in men. Men can get testicular cancer and cancer of the penis. I would like to say to young people: ‘Read up, ask your questions and then get vaccinated!’”
Myesha also thinks it’s very important to read up carefully: “It’s about your health, so you can keep yourself safe. If not through vaccination, maybe in another way.”
Onira: “At the end of the day, it’s all about getting informed. If you have more information, you are better prepared in life. It is very important to take good care of your body and to make conscious choices.”
For information about HPV and vaccination against it, go to www.hpvkeuze.nl
The Ocan Foundation supports Dutch Caribbean people living in the Netherlands. For information about Ocan’s HPV campaign, go to www.ocan.nl.