Free vaccine distributed to raise HPV awareness

Tuesday, September 18, 2007 | 1:45 p.m. CDT; updated 3:43 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — Women and girls who enter the Family Health Center for primary care, routine visits and school physicals are often leaving with something more.

In February, the Missouri Foundation for Health issued an $11 million grant to provide the Gardasil vaccine to 30,000 uninsured and underinsured women and girls. The vaccine prevents types of cervical cancer associated with human papilloma viruses, or HPV, and continues to be offered at no charge for those eligible at four locations in Columbia: Columbia/Boone County Health Department, the Family Health Center, J.W. “Blind” Boone Center and Planned Parenthood.

Grant offers free HPV vaccines

Gardasil vaccinations continue to be offered for uninsured and underinsured women and girls. However, not everyone who qualifies is taking advantage of the free vaccination. HPV is a common virus that is passed on through sexual contact. Although it goes away on its own in most people, for some, it could lead to cervical cancer. • What is the HPV vaccine? Gardasil is the first vaccine to prevent cervical cancer and genital warts caused by the four most common types of HPV. The vaccine is licensed by the FDA for girls and women ages 9-26. • How is HPV related to cervical cancer? HPV infects the cervix and causes the cells to change. If HPV doesn’t go away, the cells continue to change, which if left untreated can lead to cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2007 more than 11,000 women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer and approximately 3,600 will die from it in the U.S. • Can men be vaccinated? This is not known yet. Studies are being done to find out if the vaccine works to prevent HPV infection and disease in men. • How common is HPV? About 20 million people in the U.S. are infected. Every year in the U.S., about 6.2 million people get a new HPV infection. • What are the side effects of receiving the vaccine? The most common side effect is soreness at the injection site. • Do vaccinated women still need cervical cancer screenings? Yes. The vaccine only protects against the four most common of the 30 types of HPV viruses. • Is the vaccine safe for pregnant women? It is not recommended for pregnant women.

“Very few women come in asking for it,” said Kay Strom, chief operating officer of the Family Health Center. She said her staff has been educating patients who are age appropriate about the availability of the vaccine.

“We’ve got it, and we think it will help you,” she said.

The Family Health Center of Columbia has given 193 doses of the vaccine since February. That figure includes those provided at the center’s clinic in Salisbury. The vaccine is given in a series of three doses, and it is necessary to receive all three to be protected.

“Since the vaccine is given in doses, that doesn’t indicate 193 women, but the majority of those doses have been the first dose,” Strom said. The first dose is given on the initial visit and the second two months later. The third dose follows four months from the second.

Trying to get people in for the vaccine is the difficult part, said Rachel Jones, registered nurse at the Planned Parenthood clinic on Providence Road.

“We would have more people (coming in) if people knew about it,” Jones said.

Apprehensions about the newness of the vaccine is prevalent among the patients Jones has seen, but it is not a deterrent. “Most want to know; how much is it and how to get it?” Jones said. The Columbia Planned Parenthood clinic has given about 110 free doses of Gardasil since April.

According to the Missouri Foundation for Health, the three-dose vaccine typically costs $360, plus administrative costs to give the shots. With the grant, it is free to eligible women and girls.

Strom said cost is the most pressing issue for patients, but offering it for free “makes a tremendous difference.”

While the distribution sites in Columbia are satisfied with the number of vaccines they have given, the rest of the statemight be behind.

“I felt it would go faster,” said Bev Pfeifer-Harms, director of communications for the Missouri Foundation for Health. Since the foundation is not responsible for distributing the vaccine, it measures the response of the vaccine based on what has been ordered. However, more is ordered than given out to ensure vaccination sites are prepared to give it. At this point, 30 percent of the grant money has been used to purchase vaccines.

“I was hoping more people would get it by now,” Pfeifer-Harms said.

There continues to be awareness and education. “We have to educate about the virus itself and how the vaccine can help,” Pfeifer-Harms said. “We are trying to do everything we can to educate — whatever we can do to get the word out.”

The Missouri Foundation for Health relies on the media to inform the public about the availability of the vaccine and where to get it.

Women and girls ages 9 to 26 who are uninsured or underinsured or do not qualify for Missouri’s free Vaccines for Children program are eligible to receive the vaccine under the grant.

“There is no residency requirement for receiving the free vaccine through one of the 125 sites,” Pfeifer-Harms said. “So someone who lives outside of our service region could receive the vaccine for free, if eligible — they just would need to drive to one of the distribution sites within our region, like a site in Columbia.”

“The goal is to get everyone that is eligible vaccinated,” Pfeifer-Harms said. “In general, just raise that awareness.”

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