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Too Few Taking Advantage of HPV Vaccine
By Lois Thomson



HPV (human papillomavirus) Fact Sheet

  • Approximately 79 million Americans are infected with HPV
  • Approximately 14 million people will become newly infected each year
  • HPV often has no visible signs or symptoms, so many people who have it don't know it
  • Certain types of HPV can cause cervical cancer, vaginal and vulvar cancer, anal cancer, oropharyngeal cancer (back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils), and genital warts
  • Exposure to HPV can happen with any kind of adolescent experimentation that involves genital contact with someone who has HPV
  • The vaccine is administered in three doses and is recommended for boys and girls ages 11 to 12, or 13 through 26 who have not yet been vaccinated or completed the three-dose series



If you knew about a vaccine that your kids could get to help prevent them from getting cancer, you'd take advantage of it, wouldn't you? Of course you would. But what if you didn't know about such a vaccine? Or what if you did know about it, but you thought there might be a certain stigma attached to it?

Those two scenarios are what many physicians believe are keeping parents from having their children vaccinated with the HPV vaccine.

HPV – or human papillomavirus – is a virus that can cause a host of cancers. It has been named by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as the fourth-largest public health threat in the United States for 2014. The vaccine was introduced in 2006, but the problem is that in 2013, only 57 percent of girls received it, and only 35 percent of boys.

Dr. Alan Finkelstein, director of the UPMC Shadyside Family Health Center, believes he knows the reason for the low figures: "I think the number one reason has to do with the fact that HPV is a sexually transmitted infection, so there's a lot of stigma around that. And the age the immunization is recommended is 11 and 12, before exposure to HPV and when the vaccine produces the best immune response, and I believe a lot of parents are not comfortable thinking about the sexuality of their 11- and 12-year-olds."

Additionally, the vaccine is administered in three stages. Dr. Finkelstein said that to get the immunization properly, once you receive the first dose, the next one should be in two months, and the third, four months after that. "But most kids aren't coming to the doctor that often. They come in for colds or viruses or sports physicals or whatever, and those are golden opportunities for us to get them caught up with this vaccine, and we're not doing that as well as we could."

For that reason, the Jewish Healthcare Foundation is running a public health campaign to educate parents and providers about having children vaccinated against the virus. Along with Dr. Finkelstein, William Isler, president of the Fred Rogers Company that produces preschool programs for PBS, is one of the co-chairs of the task force the JHF has put together. "I was on the board of the JHF at one time and I have been involved in a lot of their projects that deal with youth," Isler said. "Right now we're working on what we can do to get more parents and families to understand the importance of this immunization for the health of their children. We really have to inform parents of changes in what we know about preventive health."

Isler continued, "I don't think there's an excuse out there that's worth the risk. It's like saying my children aren't in groups with other children, so I don't have to worry about measles. (Years ago) parents would not allow children to go to swimming pools in the summer, but children still got polio."

Dr. Ana RadovicDr. Ana Radovic, adolescent medicine specialist and pediatrician at the Center for Adolescent and Youth Adult Health at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, recently participated in a Q&A session with the inaugural members of Grandmother Power. "It was a group of grandmothers who wanted to become involved in the movement," she said. "One of the pieces I shared with them was that not only does the vaccine prevent cervical cancer, but it can also prevent the need for procedures that are done to prevent cervical cancer from progressing from precancerous lesions. They felt a desire to be more educated about the vaccine because they were motivated to share that information with their communities."

Dr. Radovic pointed out that the vaccine is the only vaccine that can prevent a number of cancers – including cancer of the cervix, vulva, and vagina in women; of the penis in men; and of the anus and throat in both men and women – yet despite that, one of the main reasons parents reported not vaccinating was not receiving a recommendation from the health care provider. "And although health care providers can have a lot of influence on patient decisions by making recommendations, I think the community – and especially other women in the family – are important in terms of sharing their advice and their opinions."

Dr. Finkelstein concluded, "There are a lot of different strategies to prevent cancer, and many of them are difficult. Convincing smokers to stop smoking, for example, is a huge challenge. But this is simple, this is a simple immunization, and so to not take full advantage of it is an enormous missed opportunity."

For more information, call the Jewish Healthcare Foundation at (412) 594-2550 or visit www.hpvpittsburgh.org.

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