Interns were promised pizza, but they got more than just food as they watched “Someone You Love: The HPV Epidemic” at this summer’s second student seminar. In the Building 549 auditorium, students learned about human papillomavirus (HPV) infection, the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI).
One in four Americans are infected with HPV, and 14 million more become infected each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Around 80 percent of people will become infected at least once in their life. While 90 percent of HPV cases clear naturally, some strains result in genital warts or cancer. HPV causes cervical, vaginal, anal, oral, penile, and vulvar cancer. Worldwide, cervical cancer kills more than 250,000 women every year.
“Someone You Love: The HPV Epidemic” followed the stories of five women who developed cervical cancer from HPV and focused on how cervical cancer changed their lives. Moreover, it emphasized that HPV is not discriminatory; any sexually active individual can become infected. The movie enforced the need to get vaccinated, to have regular screenings, and to let go of the stigma surrounding HPV.
Intern Sylvia Beam, Office of Scientific Operations, recalled how the “starkness of death and terminal illness was very clear in the movie, as was the stigma toward any STI-afflicted person.”
A panel discussion followed the movie. Speakers included Elease Booker, health educator for the Center of Immunizations, Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene; Ligia Pinto, Ph.D., senior principal scientist, HPV Immunology Laboratory; Kelley Smith, nurse, Frederick County Health Department; and Nancy Wymer, nurse, Pediatric Center of Frederick.
All are advocates of the HPV vaccine, which is an effective cancer prevention measure. The vaccine is recommended for all 11-year-olds because it is most effective if administered before becoming sexually active—though it is licensed to be given until age 26. The vaccine is given in three doses to increase the antibody response and to give the immune system a memory boost.
Although the vaccine has good efficacy and protects individuals from cancer, many parents oppose vaccinating their children. According to the CDC, four out of ten girls and six out of ten boys have not begun the vaccination process. Some think the HPV vaccine gives their children a blank check to engage in sexual activities. Yet, there is no proven correlation between the vaccine and sexual activity. In reality, nearly every sexually active adult will have HPV at least once, and not vaccinating children leaves them susceptible to infection down the road.
Smith said it is wonderful if people have gotten vaccinated, but they must also pass the message on to others and tell them to get vaccinated, too. The panel speakers encouraged conversations about HPV to educate people and increase awareness. For instance, doctors could show kids pictures of what they are being vaccinated against and emphasize to parents that the vaccine is a cancer prevention measure.
Beam believes that “all children should receive the vaccine, regardless of gender, [because] any human infected with HPV has a chance of permanent damage, whether that be warts, cancer, or the knowledge of having helped spread the disease. Why take that risk?”
The objective is to eradicate HPV—and if everyone gets vaccinated, the panel speakers believe this is a realistic goal.