Metro Health Gets $500,000 For HPV Vaccine Push
A vaccine exists to protect young people against the most common sexually transmitted disease in the U.S. Yet most parents aren’t getting their children the shots. The San Antonio Metropolitan Health District recently acquired a big grant to change that.
HPV is an insidious disease with a funny name: human papillomavirus. The virus is spread through contact with infected genital skin, mucous membranes or bodily fluids and can be passed through intercourse or oral sex.
79 million Americans are infected with HPV. It can live undetected. Some people develop mouth lesions or genital warts, conditions doctors call inconvenient, messy and unpleasant. The biggest risk is cervical cancer, which is not simply unpleasant. It can be deadly.
Lisa Roberts of San Antonio made sure her two daughters were vaccinated against HPV. "It is absolutely, scientifically proven that HPV causes at least 80 percent of cervical cancer," Roberts stated. "And I didn’t want my daughter to have to suffer from that."
When the Gardasil vaccine was approved by the FDA a decade ago, it got a rocky start in Texas, mired in politics and myth when then Governor Rick Perry wanted to make the vaccine mandatory. Parents revolted. And the vaccine itself was tainted with tales of bad reactions.
Fast forward ten years, and you’ll find a changing landscape.
"I am absolutely an advocate," said pediatrician Lindsay Irvin, MD, who owns Alamo Heights Pediatrics in San Antonio. "I think vaccines are up there with the invention of the wheel and the discovery of fire and the invention of the microchip. It doesn’t get more basic than vaccines to change the course of human history. Each woman that survives can change the world."
Helping protect women from the threat of cervical cancer is the goal of a half million dollar grant from the Centers for Disease Control to the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District. The money will be used to train and educate local Vaccines for Children providers about the HPV vaccine and to promote its use.
Gardasil is covered by most insurance plans. Out of pocket cost is about $150 a dose.
The national Healthy People 2020 goal is to have at least 80 percent of boys and girls ages 11 and 12 vaccinated against HPV. Current Bexar County rates are much lower.
"About 60 percent of girls and 40 percent of boys are starting the series. It is a series of three shots which not everybody is aware of. And so even fewer are actually finishing it," explained Metro Health's medical director Junda Woo, MD.
Woo says the vaccine is 99 percent effective against 9 strains of HPV. She thinks a lack of education about cervical cancer risks is keeping people from embracing this avenue of prevention.
Roberts’ daughter, Jane Emma Barnett, won a Girl Scout Gold Award for a public service campaign called “It Takes Three to Knock Out HPV.”
"I just don’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want to get this vaccination if it can literally protect you from cancer," Barnett said.
Barnett created posters for pediatricians’ offices, gave peer talks to other high school students, and she took some flak for talking about a sexually transmitted disease so publicly.
She says she’d do it again.
"Any partner ever could have it. So it’s much more common than you think."
Barnett's mother says she was not about to take a chance with her daughter’s future health. "If my daughter got to the age of 30 and found herself with cancer that was completely preventable if as a parent I had given her the vaccine, I would have felt horrible. This is not about sexual activity. This is about preventing cancer. And if somebody said ‘hey, I can give you this vaccine to prevent breast cancer,” wouldn’t you do it," Roberts asked.
Cervical cancer disproportionately affects low-income and ethnic women. The CDC and Metro Health are now investing time and money to eliminate that disparity. San Antonio is one of 17 cities across the country granted money from the CDC to get more young people vaccinated against HPV.