LOCKPORT – A series of three shots will serve as a lifelong immunization against a virus that causes a sexually transmitted disease and some forms of cancer, but most people never get the shots, or never even hear about them.
Human papillomavirus, or HPV, causes most cancers of the genital areas, as well as most cancers of the mouth and throat, said Kathleen Cavagnaro, director of nursing services for the Niagara County Health Department.
On April 20, the county Health Department invited local doctors to a dinner and presented speakers from the state Health Department and from Roswell Park Cancer Institute, as well as a cervical cancer survivor, to push the idea that doctors should promote the HPV immunization to their patients.
Cavagnaro said the shots can be given effectively to boys and girls between the ages of 11 and 26.
In Niagara County, 30.4 percent of girls ages 13 to 17 have completed the HPV immunization series. For 13-year-old boys, it’s 20.5 percent.
Both of those numbers are slightly ahead of the statewide averages for counties outside New York City, but are a far cry from where officials would like the numbers to be.
Cavagnaro said, “Our goal for Healthy People 2020, which is an initiative of the state Health Department, is 80 percent.”
HPV shots are mandated in only two states, Rhode Island and Virginia, as well as the District of Columbia. The Rhode Island Health Department’s mandate for seventh graders, which took effect last fall, was highly controversial, and some state legislators tried unsuccessfully to repeal it.
A bill to require HPV shots in New York went nowhere in the State Senate last year and is stuck in committee this year.
Surveys taken by health agencies show that parents say they probably would be more likely to have their children immunized against HPV if their family doctor promoted the idea.
“We are hoping to educate physicians. If physicians give a good, strong recommendation, parents will pay attention to that,” Cavagnaro said. “It’s so effective, and if we don’t vaccinate we’re leaving them vulnerable to cancer.”
Genital warts are more common than cancer if one is infected by HPV, but 90 percent of cervical and anal cancer can be traced to an HPV infection, according to federal statistics. For cancers of the mouth and throat, 70 percent of cases can be attributed to HPV.
Cavagnaro said, “We want the physicians to step it up, but we want the parents and kids to be aware of the cancer prevention aspect. We want them to ask for the vaccine, rather than waiting for the physicians to recommend it.”