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Neighbors Growing Together | Aug 21, 2018

Cancer-preventing HPV vaccinations lower in rural counties

Henry County Public Health seeks to educate parents, get teenagers vaccinated
Nov 15, 2017

By Grace King, Mt. Pleasant News


It isn’t taboo to talk about sex in the Henry County Public Health Department, although it may drive some parents crazy. That’s why Public Health Director Patti Sallee isn’t going to shy away from educating parents about getting their teenagers vaccinated against the human papillomavirus (HPV).

In a new study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), HPV vaccination coverage is 15 percentage points lower in rural areas than in cities — this includes Henry County. The vaccine prevents against HPV-related cancers of the cervix, penis, anus and throat, according to the Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH). It was licensed for use in June of 2006 for females and in 2011 for males.

“The big push is trying to educate parents,” Sallee said. “In Public Health, we know people have sex. We give out free condoms. It’s not that we are promoting promiscuity, we’re promoting healthy behavior.”

In 2016, 21 percent of girls and boys in Henry County had been given the three-dose schedule. The average percentage of HPV vaccination coverage across 42 Iowa counties was 25 percent coverage for those eligible in 2016. Compare this to the U.S. as a whole, where more than half of Americans are getting vaccinated against HPV, according to the CDC report. Across the board, boys are still behind girls in getting the HPV vaccine.

HPV is not something the health community considers to be a sexually transmitted infection, but it is sexually acquired, said Kendra Bonnesen, nurse practitioner at Henry County Health Center (HCHC). It is, however, important to understand that HPV is the cause of a lot of cancers, she said.

“Even though (the vaccine) is given when girls and boys are young, you never know what might come down the line as far as their lives,” Bonnesen said. “It’s protective in that way.”

Henry County Public Health official Robin Poole said that when recommending vaccinations to parents, it’s all about the approach. Instead of singling out the HPV vaccine, she advices health care practitioners include it along with everything else. When attending the Iowa Immunization Summit in June this past year, Poole heard HPV cancer survivor’s stories that deepened her understanding of the importance of this vaccine.

“It was so touching to hear them,” Poole said. “A young man, who was probably in his 40s, talked about his struggles. It’s not just the cancer, it’s the after that they have to live with.”

Poole said that after attending the conference, she worried whether or not parents were giving this vaccine to their children early enough. She explained that if someone is HPV naive, which means they have never been exposed to HPV, the vaccine is 97 percent effective.

“That’s really a big number,” Poole said, adding that no immunization is 100 percent effective. If someone who has already been exposed to HPV gets the vaccine, the vaccine is only 44 percent effective. “There’s a big difference in that,” Poole said. “That’s why we start it so early.”

The vaccine is recommended to be given around 11- and 12-years-old. Once a person turns 26-years-old, the immunization is no longer an option.

“We’re not promoting you to be sexually active as an 11-year-old, but on the other hand, you know, there are 12-year-old girls out there having babies.” Sallee said, explaining that the earlier a person is vaccinated, the longer they have to develop immunity and better protection against HPV.

The biggest hurdle Sallee sees in ensuring teenagers are vaccinated is that parents neglect to bring their children in to complete the two- or three-dose series. The two-dose schedule is a new vaccine series that was initiated in December 2016. This is recommended for teenagers before they turn 15-years-old. The three-dose schedule is recommended for people between the ages of 15 to 26-years-old. There is a recommended six to 12 months between each dose.

Parents curious about the HPV vaccine should talk to their children’s health care provider or go to the immunization clinic in Public Health, Bonnesen said.

“Pretty much everyone will come in contact with HPV,” Poole said. “Some people can clear it and it doesn’t affect them. Some people can fight it off, and other people can’t and they get cancer from it.”

Poole continued, “And that’s really what we’re preventing — cancer.”

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