Since 2007, when Governor Rick Perry instituted a controversial mandate that Texas girls be inoculated against a cancer-causing, sexually transmitted disease, HPV vaccines have received negative attention.
But Cherokee County Public Health aims to change that perception through education.
Even though the effort failed on the state level, parents like Chris Taylor have chosen to take a proactive role in the future of their children's health when it comes to the human papilloma virus.
“I trust myself as a parent to make the decision, and my oldest child has had the vaccine even though I know he's not sexually active at this point,” said Taylor, who is the executive director of Cherokee County Public Health. “In the event that something would happen, why not protect him and the other party? I cannot suggest to others, 'do it,' then not do it myself.”
As a proactive measure, the Texas Vaccines for Children program, which is endorsed by Cherokee County Public Health, is offering a three-dose HPV vaccine series at no cost to eligible Cherokee County youths ages 11-18, according to health clinic coordinator Cheryl Hill.
Patients must show proof of children's Medicaid or CHIPS enrollment each time they come for their vaccine, according to program guidelines. If a client has no insurance, a $7 administrative fee is assessed for the series, while a youth who turns 19 during the course of the immunization pays a $10 fee through the program.
The HPV vaccine, manufactured by Gardasill, has been available through the health department for a while, Taylor said, “but in the past it probably has not been as well-publicized because it's created a lot of attention and (people) might not understand what the intent behind it is.
“So, we're following our protocols by ensuring that the public understands the benefits of the vaccine and what it's for,” he said.
Both he and Hill stressed that the HPV vaccine is not mandated, but simply available to those clients interested in receiving it.
“It's not a required vaccine, but it is an important one, because at this point, it's the No. 1 cause of cervical cancer,” Taylor said.
Since it delves into the sensitive subject of sexual activity, the health department is exercising great care in how it educates parents about the HPV vaccine so that they are well-informed about the decision they make.
“I would challenge every parent to do their research on the benefits of the vaccination before declining for personal preferences,” Taylor said. “Sometimes, there can be a lot of speculation when a person doesn't have a lot of knowledge about the vaccination.”
The health department distributes English and Spanish-language pamphlets with information about HPV, and offers the vaccine when parents bring their 11- or 12-year-old child to the clinic for school immunizations, Hill said.
“A lot will ask if their child needs it for school, and we just explain it's something they may want to think about,” she said. “We consider it more of a preventative measure (than anything else).”
So far, parents seem to be surprised to learn about how the virus can affect their child, she said.
“I think a lot of times,” parents don't think about their child's sexuality or how it can affect their health because they're still so young, Hill said.
“And we see it more often with young male clients, whose parents say, 'He doesn't need that,' because they think HPV is just cervical cancer. But we know that males can be carriers, they are transmitters (of HPV), so it's very important for them to be vaccinated as well,” she said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, HPV is a common virus spread from person to person through sexual contact, but because there are no symptoms, most of the time individuals don't realize they carry the virus. Annually, 6.2 million new cases are reported in the United States, and approximately 20 million people carry the HPV virus.
There are 250 known strains of the virus, of which 40 strains cause genital warts, while other strains cause cervical cancer in women, according to the CDC.
Citing figures from the countyhealthrankings.org, Taylor noted that so far this year, Cherokee County has reported 337 cases of sexually transmitted infections, less than the state average of 435 cases but an alarming four times the rate of the national benchmark of 84 cases.
Bearing those figures in mind, parents need to realize that “HPV is most commonly transmitted by males, primarily through a sexual environment, to females,” he said.
Hill said that many times, “people just don't know they have HPV.
“And this is where the cervical cancer comes in: Somebody can have an infection that clears up on its own, but then goes away. But there are some strains that hang around, and women don't know they have it because it goes undetected,” she said.
The vaccine – a serum comprised of the most common strains of the virus that cause genital warts and cervical cancer – will be included as part of the youth's shot record.
The CDC recommends immunizing females ages 11-26 and male, with the second dose administered approximately 1-2 months after the initial vaccine, and the third dose six months after the initial dose, according to a health department release.
For more information, contact the Cherokee County Public Health at 903-586-6191.
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