CU Population Center

Institute of Behavioral Science

Kim Truong-Vu searches for the source of disparities in use of HPV vaccine.

It is well-known that major health disparities exist between race-ethnic groups -and between men and women in some circumstances- due not only to differences in the capacity of groups to afford particular forms of preventative and medical treatment (e.g., having systematic access to health insurance mechanisms), but also owing to the frequency in which specific treatments are sought of and prescribed, e.g., as health care providers and social workers use cues on what treatments to recommend based in part on perceptions of who is at higher or lower risk based on race-ethnicity and gender cues.

How doctors recommend, parents decide on whether their children need, and adolescents push or shy away from getting the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, and at what age it is administered, is a case-in-point for these issues. Teenage “girls” -particularly perhaps of race-ethnic groups perceived as being more sexually active- used to be (and, to some extent, are still) often thought of as the main subjects to recommend the vaccine, in part because of the clear link between HPV and cervical cancer. We will leave it for another time to delve on the externalities of prescribing boys with the vaccine to reduce cervical cancer in women a couple of decades down the road. Suffice to say that, since these seminal studies on cervical cancer came out, HPV has also been associated with other types of cancer that also and particularly affect men, like those of the neck and throat. And thus, boys have been encouraged (and covered) to take the vaccine.

The issue is of particular relevance for Asian men -specifically of Southeast Asians, in the United States mainly composed of people of Vietnamese, Laotian, Cambodian, and Hmong origins- given their somewhat higher rates of cancers for which HPV is an important risk factor. Much is left to be understood about how these processes operate as they combine the implicit (and, sometimes, explicit) biases of health care practitioners and others with the stigma of seeking for STI prevention in particular communities.

It is at the intersection of how health practices and sexuality are racialized and gendered that Kim Truong-Vu found her calling. While pursuing a double-major in Sociology and Asian American Studies at the University of California – Santa Barbara, Truong-Vu learned about human sexuality from renowned scholars Janice and John Baldwin while listening to and trying to help her fellow students navigate the difficult terrain of sexual health as a peer health educator at her dorm first, and the student health center later, learning the social science of sexuality while witnessing the shame and stigma associated with sexual health decisions and outcomes, and how many of these barriers are gendered and racialized.

And thus, Truong-Vu’s mixed-methods dissertation is uncovering how HPV vaccination decisions are driven by these forces. In a quantitative piece, Kim already showed that otherwise small race-ethnic differences in self-reported HPV vaccination amplify once examined under an intersectional lens: Asian boys are least likely to be vaccinated, and these disparities are not explained in any way, shape, or form by socioeconomic disparities (on the contrary, Asian families have higher average socioeconomic status and, as such, the HPV vaccination rates of Asian boys are even lower than expected once socioeconomic factors are considered).

Based on the research pointing at Southeast Asian men as particularly at risk, Truong-Vu is currently carrying out fieldwork among Vietnamese-Americans in Southern California, searching for the processes and habitus operating within families, neighborhoods, and the health care system that may be disproportionately preventing Vietnamese-American boys from vaccinating against HPV. Soon enough, we will hear more about how these barriers are constituted, and how they can be disarmed while Truong-Vu produces more research on the topic and inspires the next generation of scholars in a research institution near you.