As National Cancer Prevention Month kicks off this February, Fordham biologist Patricio Meneses called for a stronger effort to ensure that people are taking precautionary steps to counteract the spread of human papillomavirus (HPV) infection— the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States.
“We have to flood the market to let women and young girls and boys know that they should get vaccinated,” said Meneses, Ph.D., associate professor of biological sciences, who dedicates his laboratory to studying the basic processes that establish HPV infection.
HPV and Black Women
This past month, a study published in the journal Cancer highlighted the impact of the virus, which affects 14 million Americans each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Researchers found that the death rate from cervical cancer, an HPV-related cancer, is higher among black women than previously suspected. According to the study, black women were dying of cervical cancer at twice the rate of white women. Among black women over the age of 20, the rate of cervical cancer death was 10.1 deaths per 100,000 women while the rate for white women was 4.7 per 100,000 women.
One major emphasis of the Cancer study is that HPV-related cancers like cervical cancer is up to 93 percent preventable by pap smears and HPV vaccinations, according to the CDC.
“There might be something biological where some groups are more susceptible, but I think there are some groups who may also be less good at preventative medicine,” said Meneses. “Once they go to get a check-up, it’s almost too late.”
Meneses, who has spent his career examining the process of initial viral entry and trafficking to better understand HPV, said HPV vaccines are mostly marketed as antiviral vaccines when in fact they should also be viewed as anticancer vaccines.
Taking Preemptive Measures
Currently, Gardasil, Gardasil 9, and Cervarix are the only vaccines approved by the Food and Drug Administration to help prevent HPV infection. Both Gardasil and Gardasil 9 have been approved for use in men, women, girls, and children. Cervarix has been approved for use in girls and women for the prevention of HPV-caused cervical cancer.
“We need to make sure that the vaccines are hitting enough people to prevent the disease from spreading from person to person,” said Meneses. “Right now, the vaccines are being taken by approximately 40 percent of young girls, and you almost need 80 percent to ensure the protection.”
While there are preemptive measures in place to combat the disease, access to affordable health care continues to be a potential limiting factor for minority women.
“If you’re not very wealthy or don’t have good health care, you’re probably not going to get the vaccine,” he said. “And if you’re not getting the vaccine early on, you’re going to be getting an HPV infection and that’s going to already predispose you to having cervical cancer.”
Meneses said the challenge that doctors face today is getting people to understand that tactical practices such as screenings and vaccinations are the first line of defense against HPV-related cancers.
“This is one of those diseases from the perspectives of a scientist that you can almost eradicate from the world because it’s virally mediated,” he said. “You could eventually cover enough people that it doesn’t present a problem anymore, but obviously that’s in an ideal world.”
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