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HPV vaccine prevents cancer, saves lives

St. Charles Cancer Center has banded together with Deschutes County Health Services, Central Oregon Pediatic Associates and a long list of other health care providers to deliver a simple, yet potentially life-saving message:

The humanpapilloma virus, or HPV, can cause cancer. But getting a vaccine can prevent it.

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC. It is so common, in fact, that most sexually active men and women will get at least one type of HPV during their lifetime.

Most people will never know they have the virus, as it often doesn’t lead to symptoms or health problems. But for others, it can cause cancers of the cervix, vagina, vulva, penis, anus and back of the throat.

Between 2005 and 2010, the number of these HPV-related cancers doubled in Central Oregon.

About 27,000 cancers diagnosed each year are caused by HPV, said Dr. Linyee Chang, a radiation oncologist and medical director of St. Charles Cancer Center. While the good news is these cancers can be stopped with the HPV vaccine, she said, the bad news is too few people are electing to get the shots.

“The message from providers needs to be clearer and stronger: The HPV vaccine prevents cancer,” she said. “But we need to educate the public about it.”

Healthy People 2020, a federal health promotion and prevention initiative, calls for greater than 80 percent HPV vaccination among 13 to 15 year olds by the year 2020. Just four years out from that benchmark, Oregon hovers around 28 percent. In Crook and Deschutes counties, rates are even lower at 20.7 and 25.8 percent, respectively. Jefferson County is the regional leader at 33.6 percent.

“We have a lot of work to do,” Chang said. “Nationwide it’s a problem. Statewide it’s a problem.”

But Central Oregon’s HPV coalition is determined to see that change.

After identifying HPV vaccination as its prevention topic of the year, St. Charles Cancer Center applied for grant funding to help spread its message far and wide. Now health departments and clinics throughout the region have agreed to distribute educational materials highlighting the important role the HPV vaccine plays in cancer prevention.

“If people focus on the sexual transmission part of HPV, they’re losing the message,” Chang said. “The message from us, the coalition, needs to be HPV vaccination as cancer prevention, because it is very powerful cancer prevention.”

The HPV vaccine is most beneficial when given to girls and boys between 11 and 12 years old, before they are exposed to the virus, Chang said. The vaccine, which is considered safe and effective, is administered as a series of three shots over a six-month period of time and is covered by most health insurance plans.

For most people, Chang said, the choice should be easy: “Cancer treatment is toxic—we cut, we burn, we poison. Prevention is just a series of three shots.”

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