SOURCE: Native Health News Alliance

Native Health News Alliance

March 02, 2016 11:38 ET

Health Experts Urge Native Families to Consider HPV Vaccine for Preteens

While American Indian Youth Report High Vaccination Rates, the HPV Vaccine Rate Is Low When Compared to Other Vaccines; Experts Say Ages 11 and 12 Are the Best Times to Vaccinate

SAN DIEGO, CA--(Marketwired - March 02, 2016) - It's a question that seems to be on many parents' minds: How safe is the human papillomavirus, or HPV, vaccine?

The answer, experts say, is very safe -- yet the controversy surrounding the vaccine still looms. The virus, the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States, can lead to cancer in men and women down the road. This includes cervical, vaginal, penile and anal cancer, as well as cancers of the head, neck and throat.

The HPV vaccine is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for preteen boys and girls ages 11 and 12. Health providers administer the vaccine in a three-dose series over the course of six months to protect against certain cancers caused by the virus, a preventative measure that Hidatsa/Assiniboine/Chamorro mother Coco Villaluz is giving serious thought.

"He's about to be a teenager," Villaluz said of her 12-year-old son. "My biggest concern is, 'Is it safe?' But my mom used to work at the health clinic and she told me to make sure my son got the vaccine."

There are three versions of the three-dose HPV vaccine, all of which have proven very safe and effective in preventing HPV, experts say. Most people who get the vaccine have no side effects, though some experience slight redness or soreness at the site of the shot on the arm, according to the CDC.

Children are strongly recommended by the American Academy of Family Physicians and the American Academy of Pediatrics to receive the HPV vaccination according to the recommended schedule

What you need to know about HPV

According to the CDC, an estimated 79 million U.S. men and women are currently infected with the human papillomavirus, with an estimated 14 million people diagnosed with its cancer-causing types each year.

Among those who are twice as likely to report HPV infection than the national average are Native American women living in the Northern Plains and Midwest regions, specifically in North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Nebraska.

Native women in these areas are also twice as likely to experience cervical cancer as compared to non-Hispanic white women of the same area.

Health providers in Indian Country say uptake of the vaccine just hasn't been as high as they had hoped. While overall vaccination rates are higher for American Indian youth than other groups, rates are low when it comes to the cancer-preventing HPV vaccine.

"It's a big thing at our facility," said Esther Calac, a family nurse practitioner with the Indian Health Council, of the HPV vaccine. "I tell every woman about this vaccine. I tell them to please consider this for your daughters and nieces."

Calac and her staff, who serve nine reservation communities in North San Diego County, make every effort to recommend the HPV vaccine to each family, and encourage patients to complete all three doses within the recommended 6-month window.

"The return rate is pretty good because again, this is a community and we see them all the time," Calac said. "We're all very aware we need to remind them to come back in, and I always tell patients, 'You have to be responsible. This is your body, but I need you to come back in.'"

The HPV cancer risk

Taking a closer look at the impact of HPV in the Northern Plains region is Delf Schmidt-Grimminger, a senior scientist with the Sanford School of Medicine at the University of South Dakota and the Avera Cancer Institute in Sioux Falls. He meets with Native families in clinics across South Dakota, where questions about vaccinations often come up.

"In general, for our reservations here, we have usually good immunization rates, but the rate for HPV vaccine is very low," Schmidt-Grimminger said, adding that because HPV is spread through sexual transmission, it's critical that both men and women receive the vaccine.

Misconceptions about HPV and how it affects men and women make it hard for families to understand the serious health implications, Schmidt-Grimminger said. During a clinic visit, he remembers meeting with a Native American father to discuss vaccinating his preteen son.

After explaining the risks of HPV infection including cancer, the father argued his son was 'tough enough' to fight it off.

"Like with all STDs, both sides have to be vaccinated," Schmidt-Grimminger said. "It doesn't help if we only vaccinate the women and not the boys. In order to eradicate the disease, you really want to vaccinate everybody in that age group."

Schmidt-Grimminger recommends the vaccine to all parents of both preteen girls and boys, urging the time is now -- at ages 11 and 12 -- because the vaccine is most effective when given before individuals become sexually active.

"You want to give your child the best chances in life for education, for happiness, but even for health, and not giving the vaccine is virtually taking a chance away from them, even for the entire community," Schmidt-Grimminger said.

Talking -- and asking questions -- about the HPV vaccine

According to the CDC, close to 30,000 HPV-related cancers occur each year in the U.S., including an estimated 9,300 HPV-related cancers in men. Cancer is the second leading cause of death for American Indians.

Cheyenne River Sioux mother of three Jess Buffalo was diagnosed with cervical cancer four years ago. HPV is the main cause of cervical cancer, and the vaccines are designed to protect against the strains of HPV most likely to cause cervical cancer.

"I did some reading after I was strong enough [sic] to finally ask questions and see what was really wrong with me, then [I found out] that HPV could cause cancer, and I was never aware of that," Buffalo said.

Today, Buffalo is cancer-free. Two of her children, ages 23 and 13, have started the HPV series after their doctor recommended the vaccine.

"The provider just briefly explained to [my daughter] before they gave it to her that, 'It's just a vaccine that, since your mom had cancer before, it's just kind of like a prevention,' and she said, 'OK,'" Buffalo said. "My son, I haven't sat down and talked to him about it yet, which I will be doing soon, because they say the age is 12."

Buffalo said their next visit would include a second dose of the vaccine for her 13-year-old daughter.

In studies, the vaccine has proven effective in preventing the strains of HPV that lead to 70 percent of HPV-related cancers in men and women, according to the CDC.

Now a survivor of cancer, Buffalo hopes more parents ask questions about HPV and its cancer risks when visiting with their doctor -- and at least consider the vaccine for their children.

"I would recommend to everybody to always ask questions," Buffalo said. "I know it's scary, but you need to know what's going on in your body."

This story was created with support from the American Indian Cancer Foundation to the Native Health News Alliance.

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