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Illustrated by Moy Zhong.
Illustrated by Moy Zhong

Worth a shot

HPV vaccine prevents cervical cancer

Cancer claimed 9.6 million lives worldwide in 2018; the disease was responsible for one in every six deaths globally, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Around 54 percent of all families in America have dealt with cancer, according to Columbia Broadcasting System, making a cure to cancer the veritable holy grail of modern medicine.

In 2012, 270,000 women died from cervical cancer, caused nearly exclusively by the spread of the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus (HPV) according to the WHO. The organization additionally reports most sexually active people will come into contact with the virus at some point in their lifetime. While 90 percent of people overcome the HPV infection within two years, some cases persist and progress to cancers.

Two HPV types, 16 and 18, are responsible for 70 percent of cervical cancers and precancerous lesions, but both have vaccines available in the U.S., according to the WHO. Despite the availability of inoculation, Dr. Mark Hunter, Director of Gynecologic Oncology at the University of Missouri-Columbia, said only one in four males and one in three females receive vaccinations in Missouri.

“In a subset of people, [HPV] goes on to become real cancer. It can become a real cervical cancer as early as their 20s. The thing is, we ask that people be immunized against HPV as a child and as a young adult,” Dr. Hunter said. “What we’re going to do is prevent cancers that may occur at a later age, 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s. We’re asking people to look ahead and to anticipate trying to prevent a cancer that can occur decades [later].”

A lack of awareness and social stigma surrounding HPV and vaccinations has made the inoculation of teenagers a struggle, Dr. Hunter said. RBHS physical education and health teacher Mitchell Pittman said the school’s health teachers cover HPV as a common viral sexually transmitted infection. Fewer than half of students at RBHS have reported vaccination records for HPV, nurse Tammy Adkins said.

“About 47 percent of RBHS students have started the three-vaccine series with about 18 percent having completed the series,” Adkins said. “I think there is [a] definite benefit to vaccinations, including HPV.  I think it is more the physician who would encourage patients getting the HPV vaccine rather than the schools. I am not sure I would push for it to be a required vaccine for school enrollment, but somewhere down the line that might be decided by the state.”

Know it all

In 2017, only 54 percent of sexually-active students used condoms (the only method of birth control that protects against STDs).

Source: www.guttmacher.org, www.kidshealth.org

State legislation is difficult to consider when the topic appears to be taboo. Reasons for the avoidance of the HPV and other STDs can be complex, Dr. Hunter said. The issue is multifaceted, ranging from cultural beliefs to fears of science.

“I have seen that people have a preconceived notion about HPV vaccination. There are some populations of people that think that because this is a sexually transmitted disease, they don’t want to encourage promiscuity by condoning that behavior and vaccinating against one of those infections,” Dr. Hunter said. “I have a problem with that line of thinking. We don’t seem to have a problem in vaccinating against hepatitis, which is also a sexually transmitted disease. Most of our data has shown that this concept that the HPV vaccination may promote promiscuity in younger populations has not been valid.”

Sophomore Samaranjay Goyal sees the problem as a larger flaw with public health education in America. Goyal said the health class he took at RBHS his freshman year did not resolve some of the common stigmas he has noticed against vaccinations.

“I sincerely believe that public awareness for vaccinations is inadequate,” Goyal said. “Take our health class for example, it mainly focused on drunk driving, healthy habits and STDs. All of these are important things, but vaccines [weren’t] even mentioned in the curriculum.”

Goyal, who has been vaccinated, finds his problem with vaccine awareness aligning with the stigma against the HPV vaccination. Incorrect assumptions by doctors worsen the culture surrounding vaccines, Dr. Hunter said. He added doctors may shy away from presenting certain vaccinations because of incorrect beliefs of the willingness of parents to vaccinate their children.

“The other bit of data that we have is that parents actually are not as adverse as traditions think they are,” Dr. Hunter said. “So practitioners have the presumption that parents are going to have a hard time with the concept of vaccinating their children against sexually transmitted diseases, but they don’t; parents are actually quite interested in preventing cervical cancer in their children.”

But what parents want may be far from what legislation has passed. There have been no successful attempts at mandating the vaccination of HPV in Missouri, Dr. Hunter said, because of the stigma legislators hold toward both the disease and vaccination despite several attempts. This problem has presented itself nationwide, with a failure at a mandate attempt from Ohio in 2006.

The fight against HPV, however, still has hope in the future. Future mandates for required vaccinations are possible, Dr. Hunter said, as well as other solutions like after-school vaccinations for high schoolers, incentive programs, mammogram-van-like vaccination centers and spreading awareness of the disease by bringing it to public conversation.

Simply talking about HPV can get that information into the public, which would help increase vaccination rates and “may prevent a tremendous amount of suffering,” Dr. Hunter said. He believes the solution to the disease and its subsequent cancers ultimately comes down to the adolescents.

“Teenagers are brilliant. They’re the smartest generation we’ve got,” Dr. Hunter said. “By definition, they’re smarter than the generation before, which was smarter than the generation before them. They have to take this into their own hands. As the smartest generation in humanity, we have to encourage teens at this point to take this matter into their own hands and demand they receive vaccination so that they don’t have to face this horrible disease that I have to treat every day.”

What are your thoughts on the HPV vaccination? Let us know in the comments below.

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