Health care groups work to boost HPV awareness

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Federal health officials have named HPV as one of five top health threats for 2014. While a vaccine is available to protect against the most dangerous strains of the sexually transmitted disease that can lead to cervical cancer and other problems, only a small percentage of adolescents are getting inoculated.

To help spread the word, the Jewish Healthcare Foundation and the Eye and Ear Foundation of Pittsburgh announced Friday a public initiative to raise awareness and increase rates of vaccinations against human papillomavirus.

"There are so many issues that we don't have a solution for," said Karen Feinstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Healthcare Foundation. "It's troubling to have a solution we're not using."

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the U.S., and in addition to cervical cancer it can lead to genital and oral cancers and genital warts. A vaccine against the virus has been available for nearly a decade, but researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that only about one-third of girls and 7 percent of boys ages 13 to 17 in the United States in 2012 received the vaccine.

Limited understanding of the vaccine and lack of physician support were cited as top reasons why the vaccine has not been embraced by more people.

Friday's event marked the kickoff for the program, which will feature messaging campaigns in partnership with local health care facilities.

"It is an opportunity for us as a medical community to get everyone in a room and look at what has worked and what hasn't," Ms. Feinstein said.

Joan Cates, senior lecturer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Mass Communication, gave the keynote presentation, telling the audience of mostly health professionals that it is "time to normalize" HPV vaccines.

A panel discussed strategies to increase vaccinations, including more effective advertisements and use of social media to promote positive conversations with children and parents.

In June 2013, the CDC estimated that 79 million Americans are infected with HPV, with 14 million new cases every year. While most people infected never experience serious symptoms, HPV causes 19,000 cancers in women and 8,000 cancers in men in the U.S. each year.

Despite the vaccine's effectiveness, panelists shared obstacles to getting doctors and parents on board. The vaccine is administered in three doses. Many adolescents do not follow through with the entire regimen, which limits its effectiveness.

Many in attendance Friday expressed the desire to make HPV vaccines as standard as those for polio or diphtheria.

"I think we have to be very clear with our patients," said Alan Finkelstein, a family practice physician at UPMC and board chair of Adagio Health. "This is a gift. It's a no-brainer."

Lauren Lindstrom: llindstrom@post-gazette or 412-263-1964.

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