Did you know there's a vaccine that can prevent certain types of cancer? Many Kentuckians don't know. As part of a statewide effort to educate them, a Bardstown woman told her story to a group in Louisville about being told at age 30 that she would have to have her uterus removed because she had cancer of the cervix, Darla Carter reports for Insider Louisville.
Jessica Saxe told those attending the Louisville event that her son, Charlie, was 9 months old at the time of her diagnosis. She recalled thinking, "I don't know if I'm going to live to see him walk. … I don't know if he will remember me," her voice breaking. "That was the hardest part as a mother, knowing that I might not be able to be there for my son."
Charlie is now 6. Carter reports that Saxe has since become an advocate for encouraging others to get vaccinated against the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus, often referred to as HPV.
She was speaking at an event sponsored by the American Cancer Society, along with the Kentucky Department for Public Health and others, to promote HPV vaccines, which are effective in preventing cervical cancer and genital warts. They will be traveling around the state over the next few months to promote the life-saving vaccine.
HPV is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases, and Kentucky's children are among the least vaccinated for it. HPV can cause cancers in the cervix, vagina, vulva, penis, anus, rectum and the back of the tongue and throat. Among these cancers caused by HPV, more than 90 percent could be prevented by the vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Kentucky has the highest cancer burden for HPV-related cancers in the nation, so morally we have to" take action, Elizabeth Holtsclaw, the state and primary-care systems manager for ACS, said at the event. She said the goal of their outreach is to increase vaccine rates by 8% in the next 12 months.
In 2017, about 38% of Kentucky youths 13 to 17 were up-to-date on HPV vaccinations, meaning they'd received the full series of doses, according to the CDC, which is providing funding for the meetings. That was up from 34% in 2016 but well below the U.S. rate of nearly 49%.
The HPV vaccine is recommended for girls and women starting around age 11 until 26. For boys, it's recommended starting at age 13 until 21. Until 12, children receive two doses of the vaccine at least six months apart. Those 15 and older get three doses. The earlier the vaccine is given, the better the immune response. It is important to note that the vaccine is the only one known to prevent any form of cancer.
The vaccine is proven to be a safe and effective way to protect against the HPV virus, but can be a tricky sell to parents, Carter reports. "Part of it is nobody wants to admit that this 12-year-old is ever going to have sex, which is a fantasy," Connie White, senior deputy commissioner of the health department, said at the event.
Another contributor to the state's low HPV vaccination rate is that health-care providers don't seem to be promoting it strongly enough, Carter reports. Studies show a "clear, same-day recommendation" from a physician to a parent is the most important factor in whether a child gets vaccinated or not. That also means doctors must carry the vaccine in their offices, but many don't. The vaccine is not on the list that must be administered to incoming students or sixth graders.
"Somehow, we are treating the HPV vaccine as an 'other'," Holtsclaw said at the event. "Whether it's because it's not mandatory, we don't know. But other states are doing all right without a mandate. … The doctor needs to feel comfortable and confident making that strong recommendation."
Another reason for getting the vaccine when young is that it is supposed to be given before exposure to HPV, so ideally, before the person becomes sexually active, according to the CDC. "It's a cancer vaccine; it's not a sex vaccine," Saxe said.
Saxe, who recently had a second child with the help of a surrogate, told the group that it's critical for cancer survivors to share their stories to help persuade more people to get their children vaccinated and prevent other women from getting cervical cancer, Carter reports.
"We can stop this, but we can't do it alone," she said. "We need the doctors and the nurses and the pharmacists. We need the people in public health. We need policymakers. We need you guys to stand with us on this. We need you to make this a priority."
Kentucky Health News is an independent news service of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Kentucky, with support from the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.