Saturday, November 12, 2011

You could save your daughter’s life

(Originally published in Guyana’s Stabroek News on 05 November 2011)

When I found out that my eldest daughter was diagnosed with the human papillomavirus (HPV), I was more than a bit distressed. Cancer runs in my family and, in fact, my mother died of a different form of cancer at the young age of 48. Therefore, it was a frightening thing to discover my 24-year-old daughter had a virus that is known to cause cervical cancer.

According to an October 14 report by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), “Cervical cancer is a major cause of morbidity and mortality in the Americas, where an estimated 80,574 new cases and 36,058 deaths were reported in 2008, with 85% of this burden occurring in Latin America and the Caribbean. Two oncogenic human papillomavirus types (16 and 18) cause approximately 70% of cervical cancers and a substantial proportion of other HPV-related cancers.”

Concerning Guyana, a report by the Remote Area Medical [RAM] Guyana Cervical Cancer Project said, “According to the Pan American Health Organisation, in 2002 the incidence of cervical cancer in Guyana was 47.3 per 100,000, and the mortality rate 22.2 per 100,000. By contrast, the incidence and mortality in the US were 7 and 2.3 per 100,000 respectively.”

The good news is that in 2009 a vaccine was made available to prevent disease caused by the oncogenic subtypes 16 and 18, said to be responsible for approximately 70% of all cervical cancers worldwide. Two years on, it still boggles my mind that humans have created a vaccine against cancer.

The CDC suggests that, “Because HPV infections are acquired soon after initiation of sexual activity, HPV vaccine is most effective if administered before onset of sexual activity. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends a 3-dose vaccine schedule, completed over the course of 6 months, for a likely primary target population of girls within the age range of 9 or 10 years through 13 years.”
In other words, diligence is necessary to make sure the patient receives all three doses, but the solace that comes with knowing the effectiveness of this vaccine is worth the effort. What can be even better than knowing a vaccine to prevent cervical cancer exists for our daughters? Knowing that Guyana now has this vaccine!

A Kaieteur News report from October 30 entitled, ‘HPV vaccines arrive in Guyana’, said, “Within a matter of two weeks 20,000 doses of the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) will be administered to girls as young as 11 years old, as part of the Ministry of Health’s attempt to protect them against cervical cancer.”

I am very excited about this news, as I do not want other mothers to have to experience the feelings of fear I felt when I discovered my daughter was diagnosed with HPV. I know there are some who are wary of vaccines. I understand this completely, which is why it is important for each parent to do their own research to weigh the risks that come with HPV and the probability of your daughter contracting HPV if she does not get vaccinated against any possible side effects that may accompany the vaccine.

How safe is the HPV vaccine? According to the CDC, “The [Food and Drug Administration] FDA has licensed the vaccines as safe and effective. Both vaccines were tested in thousands of people around the world. These studies showed no serious safety concerns. Common, mild adverse events reported during these studies include pain where the shot was given, fever, dizziness, and nausea. As with all vaccines, CDC and FDA continue to monitor the safety of these vaccines very carefully.”

The CDC also stated that the vaccine is highly effective in preventing specific HPV types and the most common health problems from HPV. From my own brief research, there seems to have been some mild side effects from the vaccine in some recipients, but there does not appear to be any serious side effects proven to be linked to it. However, like I said, parents should do their own research.

Additionally, there has been an ongoing debate in the US over a moral dilemma concerning this vaccine. Since HPV is usually transmitted during sexual activity, there are some who maintain that by getting their daughters vaccinated against HPV, they are encouraging them to have sex.

This would be like saying if I put a raincoat on today, I will cause it to rain. It would seem a wiser notion to get your daughter vaccinated on the chance that she may become sexually active during her teen years (as many teenagers do) rather than to refuse to vaccinate her on this moral ground and leave her vulnerable to HPV and cervical cancer.

I have seen the devastating effects of cancer and I choose to protect my youngest daughter from any such outcome.

It takes much time and effort to get leaders to take women’s issues seriously – and this includes female health issues. I am very pleased to see this very important step toward maintaining the health of the women of Guyana.

The Kaieteur News report states that 20,000 HPV vaccine doses were received. However, this vaccine must be administered three times in a six-month period. As such, I hope the subsequent vaccines necessary to make this treatment effective are already on their way and not held up by the famous red tape that encumbers Guyana all too often.

The newest information on the HPV vaccine is that it can also be administered to boys. On October 25, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices of CDC made the vaccination recommendation for males 13 to 21 years who have not been vaccinated previously or who have not completed the three-dose series.

This is another remarkable development since both men and women can be carriers of HPV. The fight against cancer, in all its forms, has been a long and arduous one. That we have this one victory that can save the lives of thousands of women and promote healthy lives for millions more, gives hope that one day we can demolish cancer altogether.

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