Florida Health Officials Mounting New Push To Vaccinate Kids Against HPV

NEW PORT RICHEY — Angela Babson knew something was seriously wrong when her toddler's face turned gray.

Terrified the boy couldn't breathe, she rushed him to Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point. The doctors there agreed the situation was dire. They put him on a helicopter to All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg.

James Babson, 3, would need surgery to remove growths on his vocal chords that were blocking his airway. The diagnosis: recurrent respiratory papillomatosis, a rare disease caused by HPV.

"We had never even heard of it," Angela Babson recalled.

The respiratory illness isn't the only serious health issue caused by the human papillomavirus. The virus, which can be spread through sexual contact or during childbirth, can also lead to cervical and penile cancers, as well as cancers of the throat and mouth.

It's a top concern in Florida this year, with dozens of doctors and public health officials involved in a new campaign to raise awareness about the virus — and get more people vaccinated against it.

"This is not about educating just parents, but also the medical community," said Maggie Hall, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County. "We need nurses, doctors, patient-care technicians, and people in schools to remind people to get this vaccine."

The statewide push kicks off this month. It includes workshops, film screenings and other events, as well as a two-day summit in St. Petersburg next month.

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. About 14 million people are infected with the virus annually, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Though the infection usually goes away on its own, it has the potential to cause genital warts. And for some 26,000 people each year, HPV leads to cancer.

"Nearly all cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV infection," said Susan Vadaparampil, a senior member and professor in the health outcomes and behavior department at Moffitt Cancer Center.

A vaccine that protects against HPV has been available in the United States for nearly a decade, and the CDC recommends it for all girls and boys before they are sexually active. But nationally, only about 40 percent of adolescent girls and 22 percent of adolescent boys have completed all three shots. The immunization rate is even lower in Florida, where roughly 33 percent of adolescent girls and 29 percent of adolescent boys have finished the series.

Pediatricians say that's largely due to resistance from parents, whose anxieties transcend the typical concern over vaccines.

"People think that if they give their kid the HPV vaccine, it's a license to go out and procreate," said Dr. Greg Savel, a Clearwater pediatrician. "The truth is, this (vaccine) has been shown to prevent an infection that can lead to life-threatening cancer."

Savel is also the chairman of the Pinellas Immunization Team for Community Health, a collaboration between the state and county health departments, local pediatricians, hospitals, community health centers, schools and volunteers that aims to improve the county's overall immunization rate. The organization plans to play a significant role in the forthcoming campaign, he said.

In particular, Savel hopes to stress the importance of having young men get the vaccine. When the immunization first came out, it was available only to girls.

"It helps everybody," Savel said. "A young man can get HPV, have casual sex, give a girl cancer and kill her. A simple vaccine would have prevented that."

The forthcoming campaign isn't the first of its kind.

In 2014, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, partnered with the University of South Florida to raise awareness about the virus and the vaccine. Moffitt has also received federal funding to address the state's low HPV immunization rate and held a major conference on the subject last year.

Families like Babson's are encouraged by the continued efforts.

Her son James has had to undergo more than 40 surgeries to remove growths from his vocal chords. He is in remission now, but there is always a possibility the growths will return.

Babson has since become an advocate for the HPV vaccine.

"Had (his father and I) had the vaccine, we never would have had this experience," she said during an interview at the Florida Department of Health in Pasco County office, where she works in the education department.

She hopes the upcoming campaign will help dispel some of the misconceptions about the shot.

"This isn't just a sexual health vaccine," she said. "This is something people should do for themselves and for their children."

Contact Kathleen McGrory at [email protected] or (727) 893-8330. Follow @kmcgrory.

Source : http://www.tampabay.com/news/health/medicine/florida-health-officials-mounting-new-push-to-vaccinate-kids-against-hpv/2261472

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