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Grandmother Power throws weight behind HPV-vaccination effort

| Thursday, April 23, 2015, 8:55 p.m.

A group of Pittsburgh-area grandmothers have joined a grassroots movement to bolster HPV-vaccination rates.

Not a formal organization, Grandmother Power is made up of volunteers in the United States, Kenya, Canada, India and Finland.

The local Grandmother Power chapter is sponsored by the Pittsburgh Jewish Healthcare Foundation.

“Our project's goal is to increase the vaccination rate of the cancer-preventing HPV vaccine,” says Sue Steele, coordinator of the HPV Vaccination Initiative.

Currently, about 20 local grandmothers have joined the initiative. HPV, the human papillomavirus, is sexually transmitted and the cause of most cervical cancers.

“We are looking for grandmothers from every neighborhood in the Pittsburgh area to be trained and help us with this effort,” Steele says.

One such volunteer is Cecile Springer from Oakland.

“HPV is a silent stalker,” Springer says. “We live in a country where most don't talk about sex openly, and I want to help get the word out.”

HPV, composed of more than 150 related viruses, is prevalent, affecting nearly 80 million people in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For most people, the virus clears on its own, but for some it can lead to cervical or other cancers. More than 27,000 new HPV-related cancers are diagnosed each year.

According to data from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, HPV-vaccination rates nationally for adolescent girls were only 37.6 percent in 2013.

Grandmother Power is a cross section of volunteers, with all ethnicities and religious faiths joining together to investigate, communicate and educate about the benefits of the HPV vaccines.

“I think it should be a mandatory vaccination in Pennsylvania,” Springer says. “I have five granddaughters, so, naturally, I am concerned for their future health.”

The group hosts informational seminars at various locations throughout the city. Earlier this month, members of the group spoke at the Plum Senior Center. Next on their lineup is a screening of the film “Someone You Love: The HPV Epidemic” on April 25 at Row House Cinema in Lawrenceville.

“Everyone should see this film as it features five women's lives forever changed by HPV,” Steele says. “After the screening, we will have a short discussion with the director of the film, Fredric Lumiere, and HPV experts.”

Dr. Alan Finkelstein, a physician with Shadyside Family Health Center and board chairman of Adagio Health, sheds light on why many parents are not opting for the HPV immunization.

“Cancer is not a young person's disease typically, and it may not be on the radar screen for parents and teens,” Finkelstein says. “It is not required for school like most other vaccines, so the perception may be that it isn't very important.”

For parents hesitant to consider vaccinating, Finkelstein offers his take.

“Tens of millions of doses have been administered since it first became available in 2006 in the U.S.,” he says. “I have vaccinated both of my teenagers against HPV, and I would want the same level of protection for someone else's kids, too.”

Cost shouldn't be a deterrent for those looking to get the vaccination, which is ideally administered to ages 11 and 12 with a three-shot series within a six-month period.

“Insurances, local health departments and the Medicaid Vaccines for Children program cover the costs of the vaccines, which run approximately $360,” Finkelstein says.

Those interested in joining Grandmother Power can call 412-586-6710.

Joyce Hanz is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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