Groups urge HPV vaccine to prevent cancer

Kids are much more likely to get vaccinated if their doctor recommends it. That’s why a group of 14 health organizations, including the West Virginia Bureau for Public Health and the American Cancer Society, are writing to doctors around the state urging them to strongly recommend the vaccine for the human papillomavirus (HPV) to their patients.

HPV is a sexually transmitted disease that often carries no symptoms but in some cases can lead to cervical cancer and other kinds of cancer.

Health care providers around the state currently recommend that 11 and 12-year-olds receive vaccines for meningitis, tetanus, diphtheria and whooping cough. About 77 percent of West Virginia teenagers have received those vaccines.

But only 38 percent of girls and 15 percent of boys in West Virginia have been vaccinated for HPV by the time they’re 17.

Those rates are slightly above the national average, but West Virginia still has the highest rate of cervical cancer in the nation, according to the National Cancer Institute.

“You have the power to change this by making sure children and teens receive this life-saving vaccine,” the health groups write in their letter to doctors. “In HPV vaccine we have a tool that can prevent several thousand cases of HPV-related cancers per year if we just use it.”

The letter is being sent out now, in the hopes that doctors will recommend the vaccine when they see kids before school starts in the fall. When doctors recommend the HPV vaccine, a patient is four to five times more likely to receive it, the letter says.

“A strong recommendation coming from the health care provider, that’s what’s most successful in improving immunizations,” said Elaine Darling, program manager with the West Virginia Immunization Network. “Physicians, nurses, all across the state, hospitals, primary care clinics, school-based health clinics, we’re hoping to reach the vast majority of physicians in the state.”

Although HPV is primarily sexually transmitted, the vaccine is recommended for 11 and 12-year-olds because it is a vaccine not a cure, and thus needs to be given before possible exposure to the virus.

Dr. Stephen Sondike, a specialist in adolescent medicine at WVU Physicians of Charleston, said that parents are sometimes concerned that the vaccine could act as a kind of tacit approval for teenagers to have sex.

But he said that studies have shown the vaccine does not make kids more likely to be sexually active.

He also had a more tongue in cheek critique of that line of thinking.

“If you think you can get a teenager to do or not do anything, as an adult, as a parent, as a caregiver,” Sondike said, “you are extremely naive or extremely arrogant.”

Shelly Dusic fought cervical cancer for 10 years, and fought through tears describing her experience to other health professionals on Thursday.

“If there is anything I can do to encourage you as a parent to protect your child,” Dusic said, “then I encourage you to please, please get your children vaccinated.”

Reach David Gutman at, 304-348-5119 or follow @davidlgutman on Twitter.

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