Human papilloma virus (HPV) is so common that nearly all sexually active men and women will incur at least one strain during their lives. HPV causes nearly 30,000 cancers every year, and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that most future infections can be prevented by safe and effective vaccines. The Jewish Healthcare Foundation and the Eye & Ear Foundation have partnered to save lives through an HPV Vaccination Awareness Initiative. Nancy Zionts, chief operating and program officer of the Jewish Healthcare Foundation, helped us to learn more.
North Hills Monthly Magazine (NHMM): To begin with, how did these two seemingly different foundations decide to take on this endeavor?
Nancy Zionts: The Eye and Ear Foundation approached us about wanting to do an initiative on HPV because they were seeing many men with head and neck cancers. They wanted our two foundations to try to improve the vaccination rates and immunizations for boys. We thought that this was incredibly important, but we also thought that it should be for both boys and girls. After doing research and learning more about this issue, we decided that it was not only timely, but it appeared that we had a good probability of being successful in the community.
NHMM: What do we know about HPV that we didn’t know a generation ago?
Nancy Zionts:HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection; there are more than 40 types of HPV infections. They are incredibly prevalent. It was once believed that herpes caused cervical cancer, but further research indicated that while herpes was coincident with it, it was actually HPV that was causing a lot of cervical cancers. Today, the list lengthens to include many vaginal cancers, anal cancers in both men and women, penile cancers, and cancers of the mouth and throat. These are things that people don’t want to talk about, nor even imagine, but they can and do affect people in a dramatic way—not just as an illness, but as a potential cause of death.
NHMM: The mention of men in this discussion might surprise some readers.
Nancy Zionts:HPV has been seen as a female problem because of how the cancer manifests itself—most commonly as cervical cancer. It has also been unnecessarily associated as a sexual issue, as opposed to a cancer issue. That’s why our goal is not to get into a controversy on sexually transmitted diseases, but rather to concentrate on finally having vaccines that are available that can prevent certain types of cancer. Why wouldn’t we want those vaccines to be as widely disseminated as possible? There are many cancers that we now know of that we have a good opportunity to prevent. Here, at this time, is an opportunity to prevent cancer. We should be making every effort to make sure that these vaccines are out there for 100 percent of the people.
NHMM: Nevertheless, might some parents associate these vaccinations with causing their children to become more promiscuous?
Nancy Zionts:I, like so many parents, have taken my children to get vaccinations for measles, mumps, whooping cough and the rest. We give our children vaccinations for hepatitis, though none of us think that a child under the age of 10 is an IV drug user, yet we make sure that they get a hepatitis vaccine. We really shouldn’t be associating negative behavior with something that could likely be a very positive advancement in public health.
NHMM: What is the likelihood of contracting HPV?
Nancy Zionts:The numbers are extraordinarily high. Ninety percent of us will contract HPV during our lifetimes. The majority of us, however, have the ability to fight off the virus within our own bodies, and not end up with long-term effects. But, for those who do not, the vaccination could be very helpful in mitigating or eliminating their risk of cancer. We can’t just say that it will only happen to someone else, thinking that, ‘I’m careful, so that won’t happen to me.’ There is no assurance that this would be the case.
NHMM: How about walking us through the vaccination process?
Nancy Zionts:This vaccination is most effective if given between the ages of 10 and 24. But the strongest recommendation is focused on those children about 10 or 11 years old, before any behavior possibly puts them at risk. One challenge is for both children and parents not to look at this as being connected in any way with sex; at this point, it’s not. It is all about getting a vaccination for the prevention of cancer.
The other challenge is that this is a three-part vaccine. When families arrive at the doctor’s office, there should be a level of engagement between the physician and the parent. This is where that conversation should take place. You have to get them back a second and a third time.
NHMM: What do the numbers look like?
Nancy Zionts: This is currently being done for a minority of children, and we want to see that change to the vast majority of young people. For those 18 to 24 who missed the vaccinations at an earlier age, the opportunity and decision is their own to make. They can visit their own doctors, area clinics, campus health and so on, and still reap many benefits. Just as our Pittsburgh community led with polio vaccines in the 1950s, our community can now lead with the HPV vaccine.
• Jewish Healthcare Foundation: www.jhf.org