Genital HPV (human papillomavirus) is a common virus that is passed through direct skin-to-skin contact during sexual activity. The Centers for Disease Control reports that most sexually active people will get HPV at some point in their lives, though most will never know about it. That's because most HPV types cause no symptoms and go away on their own. But some can cause cervical cancer in women and other less common cancers — but can be prevented simply by getting a vaccination.
But that is happening less in Florida than any other state in the union, as the Sunshine State has the lowest rate of HPV vaccination, and one of the highest rates of cervical cancer. Attempting to reverse that is a group of local healthcare providers in Tampa, led by Congresswoman Kathy Castor, who announced their awareness campaign for pediatricians and parents this morning at the BayCare Medical Group facility.
"There is a lot of controversy out in the world about what vaccines do, but this is one of only two anti-cancer vaccines," Castor said at the news conference where she was flanked by a host of local doctors, students and healthcare professionals. "Think about that: we haven't found a cure for cancer, but if you can get three shots to prevent cervical care and oral cancer, that's revolutionary across the globe, and other countries have done a better job than we have here in America making sure young people are vaccinated."
The HPV vaccination has been around for less than a decade, and thus the lack of awareness of its effectiveness has limited its usage. But there's also the controversial aspect of the vaccination, as Castor referenced. During a 2011 GOP presidential debate in Tampa, Minnesota Republican Representative Michelle Bachmann attacked Texas Governor Rick Perry for his 2007 executive order requiring preteen girls to get the shot, saying the directive encouraged promiscuity (The Texas Legislature eventually passed a bill to block the order).
"One of the things about the HPV vaccine that parents get concerned about is that it's for a sexually transmitted infection," said Dr. Diane Straub from the USF College of Health. "But in reality, someday all of our children will be sexually active and we want them to be protected when they are, so we need to stop approaching it in that manner and approach it like ... any other vaccine."
The HPV vaccination can be given to young girls beginning at nine years old. The CDC recommends the vaccine for 11 and 12-year-old girls, and also recommends it for girls and women age 13 through 26 years of age who have not yet been vaccinated or completed the vaccine series.
Dr. Jamie Morano says one reason why Florida has such abysmal rates of getting young people vaccinated with the HPV virus is that the state is one of only ten in the nation that does not offer HPV vaccinations as part of a general pharmacy and provider partnership. "A lot of states offer [the vaccination] through local pharmacies, so what we're trying to do is both encourage physicians and other venues to offer the vaccine as part of a medical home." But like others at the press conference, she added that education is crucial. "As long as we understand it's a prevention of cancer and not just a sexually transmitted infection vaccine, then I think that we can approach this a little bit more generally."
Although the emphasis on Monday was on preventing cervical cancer, Carla Jimenez with the group Ovacome said that statistics reveal that Florida is home to some of the highest rates of several gynecological cancers, and lowest in terms of educating people about early treatment and early detection. "We're all about taking care of women and girls' bodies from top to bottom and getting over the taboo of talking about gynecological cancers with that part of the body, so let's give attention to this."
Castor said the campaign to educate people about the vaccine will take place on social media, traditional media, in healthcare facilities and also with student groups; she also wants pediatricians to become better communicators with families.