Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Michigan teens lag in cervical cancer prevention

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By EMILY LAWLER
Capital News Service

LANSING- A poke in the arm may seem like a small price to pay for the prevention of cervical cancer.

But a new U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study reveals that only 37 percent of the nation’s teens — and 32 percent of Michigan teenage girls — have received at least one round of the Gardasil shot.

The shot is meant to prevent the spread of Human Papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted disease that is harmless to males but sometimes leads to cervical cancer in women. Three shots over several months constitute the entire vaccination.

The Department of Community Health notes that the federal statistics may not be precise. “This has a margin of error—these numbers are a little bit unreliable,” said James McCurtis, the department’s public information officer.

“Even though we’re below the national average, that number may not mean much,” he said.

Jessy Sielski, manager of communications and media relations for the Michigan State Medical Society, agreed that the study’s margin of error makes the numbers suspect. However, he speculates that the cost of the shot may also be a factor.

“Hypothetically, if those numbers were accurate down to the person, the decline in the Michigan economy might have something to do with it. Michigan has been harder hit than the rest of the nation,” said Sielski.

According to the manufacturer of Gardasil, Merck & Co., the shot retails for about $125 per dose, or $375 for the series. Most health insurance plans cover the cost, but for the uninsured that can be a big expense.

“Around 18, a lot of people lose their insurance, and it’s expensive out of pocket,” said Beth Peter, a family practice physician at Lakewood Family Medicine in Holland.

However, Merck & Co. has financial assistance available and in some cases Medicaid covers the shot.

Overall, the CDC report found that adolescent females living below the poverty line were far more likely to receive the shot than their higher-income counterparts.

Peter said her office vaccinates about 39 percent of its female patients who are eligible for the shot, which is approved for females between the ages of 9 and 26.

“Our numbers are pretty similar to the national average, which isn’t great,” she said.

The CDC has confirmed 15,000 adverse reactions to the shot and 27 confirmed deaths as of Sept. 1, although it said those deaths have not been proven to directly result from Gardasil. Ninety-three percent of the reactions were considered non-serious, but there is a lot of concern surrounding the shot nationally.

Peter says there’s distress over vaccines in general, not just Gardasil. And she faces some resistance among her patients as well.
“I practice in Western Michigan, which is a pretty conservative part of the state, and some families aren’t willing to commit their 9-year-old daughters to a three-shot series to prevent a sexually transmitted disease,” said Peter.

McCurtis says his department is trying to combat that attitude.

“We just have to continue doing the job of promoting the shot,” said McCurtis.

Peter says girls are more likely to faint during a Gardasil vaccination than other types of shots, but she still encourages them to take it.

“It’s a very short amount of pain versus long-term cervical cancer and genital warts,” said Peter. “The vaccine itself isn’t perfect, but it’s all we’ve got right now.”

© 2009, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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