Source: www.houstonpublicmedia.org
Author: Carrie Feibel

U.S. regulators approved a vaccine to protect against the human papilloma virus (HPV) in 2006, but cancer experts say misconceptions and stigma continue to hamper acceptance by both doctors and parents.

Eighty percent of Americans are exposed to the human papilloma virus in their lifetimes. Some strains of HPV can cause genital warts, but most people experience no symptoms and clear the virus from their systems within a year or two. But for an unlucky minority, the virus causes damage that, years later, leads to cervical cancer, throat cancer, and other types.

Researchers at MD Anderson are frustrated that ten years after the first vaccine arrived on the market, only 42 percent of U.S. girls, and 28 percent of boys, are getting the three-shot series.

The series can be given to girls and boys between the ages of 9 and 26, but the immune response is strongest at younger ages, before sexual activity begins.

n 2007, then-Texas governor Rick Perry proposed making the HPV vaccine mandatory for all preteen girls.  At the time, the vaccine was only approved and marketed for girls.

Dr. Lois Ramondetta, a cervical cancer specialist at MD Anderson, remembers the outcry.

“A lot of people felt that was the right idea, but the wrong way to go about it. Nobody really likes being told what to do, especially in Texas,” Ramondetta said. “I think there was a lot of backlash.”

Eventually, the legislature rejected Perry’s plan, even though it included an opt-out provision. Ramondetta said too many politicians focused on the fact that HPV is sexually transmitted. That had the unfortunate effect of skewing the conversation away from health care and into debates about morality and sexuality. She said the best and most accurate way to discuss the vaccine is to describe it as something that can prevent illness and death.

“I try to remove the whole concept of sexuality,” Ramondetta said. “When you’re talking about an infection that infects 80 percent of people, you’re really talking about something that is part of the human condition. Kind of like, it’s important to wash your hands because staph and strep are on all of us.”

Today, only Virginia, Rhode Island and Washington, D.C. mandate HPV vaccines.

“Our vaccination rates are really terrible right now,” Ramondetta said.

In Texas, only 41 percent of girls get all three of the required shots, and only 24 percent of boys.

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Kara Million of League City finds those numbers upsetting.  Million survived two rounds of treatment for cervical cancer.

“Even if you had a chance that your kid could have any kind of cancer, and you could have given them two shots or three shots for it? To me, it’s a no-brainer,” Million said.

Million always got regular Pap tests. But she missed one appointment during a busy time following the birth of her second child. When she went back, it had been only 15 months since her last Pap test. But the doctor found cervical cancer, and it had already progressed to stage 3.

“That was a huge surprise,” Million recalled.

Million had chemotherapy and radiation at MD Anderson. But a year later the cancer returned.

The next step was surgery, a radical procedure called a total pelvic exenteration.

Million and her husband looked it up online.

“When I was reading it, I was just, like, ‘this is so barbaric, there is no way they are still doing this in this day and age,’” Million said. “‘For certain, in 2010 we have better surgeries to do than this.’”

But there weren’t better surgeries. This was her only option.

“I had a total hysterectomy; they pulled all the reproductive system out,” she explained. “They take your bladder out, they take part of your rectum, they take part of your colon, they take your vagina, all of that in your pelvic area comes out.”

The surgery took 13 hours, and left her with a permanent colostomy bag and urostomy bag.

“At that point, with two kids at that age – I think they were one-and-a-half and three – there’s no option. I’m a mom, so I’m going to do whatever it takes so they can have their mom.”

Most women survive cervical cancer if it’s caught early enough. But Million’s cancer was diagnosed at a later stage, where only a third of women make it past five years. She has already made it past that five-year anniversary, and she’s not wasting any time.

She now volunteers as a peer counselor at MD Anderson to other cervical cancer patients, and she urges parents to vaccinate their kids.

“If most of cervical cancer is caused by HPV, and now we have something that can help prevent what I went through, and what my friends went through, and the friends that I lost?” Million says, “I don’t understand why people don’t line up at the door to get their kids vaccinated for it.”

But Dr. Ramondetta said parents can’t consent to the vaccination if pediatricians or family doctors don’t offer it. And they’re not offering it nearly enough, she said.

Some doctors don’t know how to broach the topic, fearing it will lead to a difficult conversation about sexual behavior. Some mistakenly think boys don’t need it, although they do – not only to protect their partners from HPV, but to protect themselves against oropharyngeal and anal cancers, which are also caused by HPV.  Ramondetta added that some doctors incorrectly assume that giving the vaccine will promote promiscuity.

Ramondetta says extensive research actually shows it doesn’t.

“There should be this understanding of an ethical responsibility. That this is part of cancer screening and prevention, just like recommending mammograms and colonoscopies.”

In Texas, only 41 percent of girls get all three of the required shots, and only 24 percent of boys.

*This news story was resourced by the Oral Cancer Foundation, and vetted for appropriateness and accuracy.

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