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Spotlight put on HPV vaccine for kids

| Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014, 11:27 p.m.

Dr. Jonas Johnson and his colleagues at UPMC have several hundred patients with throat cancer caused by human papillomavirus, or HPV, a sexually transmitted infection. They hope one day to have fewer of those patients.

“It became apparent to us that children (should) be vaccinated. All the sudden, there's an opportunity for a whole generation of people to avoid HPV-related cancer,” said Johnson, chairman of Pitt's Department of Otolaryngology.

A public awareness campaign introduced on Friday by the Jewish Healthcare Foundation and the Eye & Ear Foundation aims to educate people about the HPV vaccine, which can reduce the risk of cancers. Ideally, the vaccine is given to girls and boys at age 11 or 12, before they become sexually active.

HPV infects about 79 million Americans, with 14 million more becoming infected every year — making it the most common sexually transmitted disease in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most people's immune systems ward off the virus, but certain strains lead to genital warts and cervical, genital and oral cancers.

In Pennsylvania, the vaccination rate for HPV is 40 percent for girls 13 to 17 and below 10 percent for boys, said Karen Wolk Feinstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Healthcare Foundation.

“As it came to our attention that we have something that prevents unpleasant cancer and people weren't taking it, how could we resist?” Feinstein said.

Some children take only the first of the three injections necessary for the vaccine to be effective. Critics claim the vaccine has dangerous side effects and could promote promiscuity. Fellow Republican presidential candidates bashed Gov. Rick Perry in 2011 for a mandate requiring young girls in Texas to get the vaccination to prevent cervical cancer. The Texas Legislature overturned the mandate.

Johnson and the CDC regard the vaccine as safe. A study published on Sunday in the medical journal Pediatrics found the vaccine does not lead to riskier sexual activity among young women who get injected.

Feinstein said the research on the topic helped eased concerns about the vaccine.

“It made it easier to have a conversation with parents,” she said.

The Eye & Ear Foundation added $10,000 to the initial $25,000 the Jewish Health Care Foundation provided.

Lawton Snyder, executive director of the Eye & Ear Foundation, said his group decided to help pay for the public awareness campaign because the scientists that it supports were aware of the vaccine's impact.

“We have a way to prevent people from having life-threatening cancer in their adult lives,” he said.

Bill Zlatos is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7828 or bzlatos@tribweb.com.

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