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Low use of HPV vaccine alarming, UH says

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University of Hawaii doctors say they are concerned about the state’s “alarmingly low” immunization rate for human papillomavirus, the most common cancer-causing sexually transmitted disease in the United States.

In Hawaii, only 38 percent of females and 31 percent of males 13 to 17 years of age are fully immunized to protect against HPV, which has 100 different strains that affect different parts of the body, according to new data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Officials at the UH John A. Burns School of Medicine are urging the public to take action. They say all 11 and 12-year-olds should get the controversial vaccine.

“We’re not talking about a cold. This is cancer and it can be prevented,” said Dr. Raul Rudoy, a University of Hawaii pediatric infectious disease specialist. “The reason for giving the vaccine at that early age is that it needs to be provided before the children have a risk of getting the disease.”

Children need three shots over a six-month period for full protection.

The vaccine came under fire in recent years because “some people believe by giving the vaccine you will make the boys and girls promiscuous, which is not true,” Rudoy said, adding that the anti-vaccine movement has also scared people away from being immunized.

In addition, many doctors are not pushing the vaccine, though Rudoy was unclear why.

“The risks of the HPV vaccine are minuscule in comparison to the enormous benefits,” he said. “There is an effective vaccine that will prevent HPV infections.”

Nearly 30,000 cancers are  caused by HPV annually in the U.S. An estimated 20,000 women die each year mostly from cancer of the uterus, while 9,000 men die from cancer of the throat or penis, according to Rudoy.

UH officials say 80 percent of sexually active women will contract HPV at some point in their lives, though the virus will be harmless for most people.

The university is hosting its annual Aloha Pediatric Infectious Diseases Conference from 12:30 to 5:30 p.m. Sept. 12 at the John A. Burns School of Medicine in Kakaako. Health care providers will discuss strategies to improve vaccine coverage and increase public awareness of the potentially deadly disease.

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