Taking a shot at HPV prevention
Young fans who attend the Falmouth High girls’ basketball game on Jan. 31 and the Mashpee High boys’ basketball game on Feb. 14 will have the opportunity to spin a prize wheel and participate in a halftime basketball free-throw contest.
At the 3rd Annual “Take the Shot Night,” they will also, along with their parents/guardians, learn about a different shot that will protect them from the HPV virus and HPV-related cancers.
Along with the prizes and the free-throw competition will be an educational table where Cape Cod Healthcare and Team Maureen, a Falmouth-based nonprofit that focuses on the importance of vaccination and screening to prevent HPV and its related cancers, will provide parents and their children with informational literature and brochures. It is part of a campaign by CCHC and Team Maureen to spread the word about the HPV vaccine that also includes appearances at community events, sporting events, such as the Falmouth Road Race, and in Cape Cod schools.
“We want to go to places where we can reach a diverse group of people, because HPV is something that affects everybody,” said Kelly Welch, executive director of Team Maureen.
Team Maureen was founded by Eileen Lind, a nurse practitioner who lives in Falmouth with her husband, Peter, who is a Falmouth pediatrician. In 2006, Lind lost her sister, Maureen Russo, to HPV-related cervical cancer. Russo was 37, married and with two young children.
Importance of Vaccination
The importance of vaccinating preteens for HPV, or the human papilloma virus, is not widely understood, said Welch, even though approximately 80 percent of the population will contract HPV in their lives, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Many parents didn’t have the opportunity to get vaccinated because the vaccine wasn’t around when they were that age, so they don’t know about it. We’re trying to help parents understand what this is and why it’s important,” Welch said.
Every year, according to the CDC, about 44,000 new cases of cancer are found in parts of the body where the HPV virus is found, with around 35,000 caused by HPV. The vaccine is more than 90 percent effective in children who are vaccinated between ages 9 and 14, but its effectiveness begins to drop after age 15. Two doses, administered at least six months apart but within one year, are required before age 15. After age 15, a third dose is needed.
The optimum time to be vaccinated is age 11 and 12, according to Kirsten Albers, manager of Oncology Clinical Quality at the Cape Cod Healthcare Oncology Clinic.
HPV is contracted by intimate skin-to-skin contact. For many people, the virus is asymptomatic and can be successfully fought off by their immune system. But sometimes it can lead to six HPV-related cancers: cervical, oropharyngeal, penile, anal, rectal, and vulvar/vaginal.
Vaccinating at the Optimal Time
The fact that the virus is related to sexual contact has made some parents reluctant to vaccinate their children, said Albers.
“Parents associate the cancers with sexually transmitted diseases, so it’s hard to wrap their heads around that when you’re talking about a 10- or 12-year-old,” she said. “But it’s not a matter of when or if your child becomes sexually active; it’s a matter of the effectiveness of the vaccine being greater if they are vaccinated when they’re young.
“Our goal is to have parents protect their children most effectively at an age when it’s uncomfortable to think about their child becoming sexually active.”
Adds Welch, “We always tell parents that it’s not about sex; it’s about when the child’s immune system responds best to the vaccine.”
Although the virus was previously associated largely with cervical cancer, Welch points out that there has been a dramatic increase since the 1980s in HPV-related oropharyngeal cancers in the head and neck, such as mouth, throat, tongue and tonsil cancer. According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, approximately 53,000 people in the U.S. will be newly diagnosed with oral cancer in 2020, due to the use of tobacco and alcohol, but also to exposure to HPV.
“It’s not just a women’s issue anymore,” Welch said. “There are actually more oropharyngeal cancers in men now than there are cervical cancer cases in women. We can have a huge impact on all these HPV-related cancers if we can get vaccination rates up.”
The Falmouth High girls’ basketball game on Jan. 31 and the Mashpee High boys’ basketball game on Feb. 14 will both begin at 6:30 p.m. Free T-shirts will be given to the first 75 children at both games. For more information on these events and on HPV, visit www.teammaureen.org.