Pittsburgh grandmothers band together, help tackle HPV prevention

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An international “Grandmother Power” movement, which has spread from Kenya to California, is giving grandmothers a new role as activists in local communities. On Wednesday morning, grandmothers gathered Downtown to celebrate the establishment of Pittsburgh’s first Grandmother Power chapter.

Projects among groups vary — from caring for grandchildren orphaned by AIDS to forming peace brigades — but all share the common goal of becoming advocates to improve the future for grandchildren everywhere.

The Pittsburgh chapter, established through a partnership between the Jewish Healthcare Foundation and the Women and Girls Foundation, plans to focus its initial efforts on increasing HPV vaccination rates in the region.

HPV, or human papillomavirus, is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S. People infected with HPV don’t typically present any signs or symptoms, making it easier to spread unknowingly. This can be fatal as HPV accounts for 26,000 new cases of cancer — most on the cervix or throat — each year.

The HPV vaccine protects against the four most common HPV strains known to cause cancer. However, fewer than 38 percent of girls and 14 percent of boys received the recommended three doses of the vaccine in 2013.

Low rates are partly due to problems with timing because the vaccine requires three doses to be administered over six months. Controversy over administering the vaccination, which is recommended for children ages 11 to 12, has also stemmed from worries that it will promote sexual promiscuity among adolescents despite multiple studies showing that vaccination did not increase risk of sexual behavior.

“When my 8-year-old grandson turns on the radio to his favorite rock music and I hear the lyrics, I think the HPV vaccine is the last thing we have to worry about in encouraging promiscuity,” said Karen Wolk Feinstein, grandmother and president and CEO of the Jewish Healthcare Foundation.

The Grandmother Power group hopes to address the issues causing the low vaccination rate through subcommittees focused on data evaluation, conversations with parents and doctors and messages geared to young adults. Grandmothers’ positions as “wise and credible” elders within the community may make them the perfect mediators for addressing the issue.

“We have raised our own kids, pursued our careers and are at a point in our lives where we now have the time to reflect and think about how we can give back and make the world a better place,” Ms. Feinstein said.

Ana Radovic, adolescent medicine physician and pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, agreed because of grandmothers’ experiences with family decisions, beliefs and medical history. “They also may see some problems associated with HPV in their own circle that parents and younger generations might not see yet.”

“I want to know we did everything to protect the young from devastating cancers — let’s get the job done and do what’s right,” Ms. Feinstein said.

Grandmothers hoping to join the chapter and others hoping to learn more can visit www.jhf.org and click on the HPV Vaccination Initiative tab under Projects and Programs.

Campbell North: cnorth@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1613.

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