In 1986 the Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion detailed the basic goals and objectives for health promotion . One of the goals was to achieve equity in health, and one of the strategies for doing this was to ensure equality of access to information. The motivation behind the strategy was the view that people can make healthier choices (in this case choose to be vaccinated), if they have appropriate information . It is this issue of equality of access to information that lies at the heart of the present study. In an environment in which it is known that the most deprived areas have twice the incidence of cervical cancer as the least deprived areas , the most deprived and the least deprived areas should have, at a minimum, the same level of exposure to health relevant information. Indeed, as a matter of policy, it may be preferred for those areas with the highest incidence to have an even greater exposure to relevant information than those less deprived area with a lower incidence.
As anticipated, schools in the least deprived areas were significantly more likely to request the educational resources than schools in the most deprived areas; furthermore, this association held even after adjusting for school type, size and geographical region. Although the relationship between area deprivation and request for teaching resources was not particularly strong (OR = 1.32), given the association between deprivation and incidence of cervical cancer, any significant trend in exposure to health promotion material in the wrong direction is cause for concern and further investigation.
One explanation for the finding that less deprived areas had a higher take up rate of the educational resources may relate to the "inverse equity hypothesis" [31, 32]. According to this hypothesis, higher socioeconomic status groups pick up interventions quicker than lower socioeconomic status groups. This increases the health differences between the groups in the short term. However, with the passage of time, the lower socioeconomic groups begin to pick up the intervention, which then reduces the health differences between the groups. It may be that schools in less deprived areas are better placed to take advantage of the freely available educational resources, explaining their quicker take up. Assuming the hypothesis is correct, and given continued availability of the materials , the difference in the take up rate may reduce over time.
In addition to the modest deprivation effect, there was a regional effect, with schools from some regions (the East and South West) having almost twice the odds of requesting the education resources as schools in London or the North East (with the highest percentage of small deprivation areas in the most deprived area quintile ). There was also a school size effect, with the smallest 20% of schools half as likely to request the materials as the larger schools.
It is tempting to speculate why factors such as area, school size, or indeed school type might be significantly associated with the take-up of the health promotion resources. One might speculate for example that religion could underpin school size or school type effects; perhaps with more religious (and possibly conservative) schools less supportive of the HPV vaccination program. Alternatively, it might be that smaller schools, with fewer staff, simply lack the capacity to take advantage of support offered through external initiatives. Unfortunately, the data are such that none of these questions can be adequately disentangled, and any response remains purely speculative.
There are two important limitations to the findings. The first limitation relates to the operationalisation of exposure to health promotions materials. The relationship between an individual's exposure to the health promotion materials and a school's request for materials is essentially unknown in this study. It may be that schools that did not request the materials from the RSPH but obtained the materials through a secondary source. Nor is it sufficient simply for school to request the materials, they have to be integrated into the curriculum which could be constrained by competition with other topics , school policy or local culture . The extent to which materials are integrated into the curriculum will also affect individual's exposure. Nonetheless it is reasonable to assume that, on average, students in schools requesting the materials had a higher exposure to those materials than students in schools that did not request the materials. The second limitation relates to the design. As a "natural experiment" there was no control, and a range of unmeasured (and unknown) possible confounders, making any inference about a causal relationship impossible.
There is, prima facie, a third limitation, which on reflection is unfounded. The "third limitation" is that the area deprivation of a school does not reflect the area deprivation of the students within the school. This makes less sense when it is actually drawn out. The argument would be that, on average, students attending schools located in the most deprived areas are no more likely to live in most deprived areas than students attending schools in least deprived areas. It is true that students attending independent (privately funded) schools may travel considerable distances to attend school. Schools in receipt of government aid, however, tend to draw their student body from their local area. So the area level of deprivation of a government aid school is going to be similar (the data were in quintiles) to the area in which the students live. The adjustment in the analysis for school type was particularly pertinent to this argument; and even after adjustment, students attending schools in more deprived areas were significantly less likely to be exposed to the health promotion material.
Notwithstanding the limitations, the findings support the central idea that more deprived areas are likely to have a lower exposure to health promotion messages than less deprived areas. The effect is not strong, but the accumulation of weak effects over time, can have important ramifications for population health , and for the disparity in the health of more and less socially deprived groups. The interaction between the level of exposure, the level of area deprivation, and the individual response to health promotion messages would be a fruitful line of future inquiry.