Human Papillomavirus – more commonly known as HPV — is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. It is so common that almost all sexually active individuals will get it at some point, which puts them at risk for developing various cancers. The good news: HPV is preventable. The bad news: vaccination rates are low nationwide, with particularly troubling statistics coming out of West Virginia.
Shelly Dusic found out she had cervical cancer two weeks after she got married. She was 22.
“And I was probably the most grateful person to find out I had cancer you’ve ever seen,” says Dusic. “Because for the six years prior to that, I’d been told by four doctors that I’d never live to see 30, that they didn’t know what was wrong with me. [I had] been through seven diagnostic surgeries and we didn’t know what was wrong.”
Her first symptoms of having HPV – irregular, heavy periods, debilitating pain in her right side – started when she was about 16. She had a hysterectomy to address the cancer when she was 23.
Dusic was quick to point out that her case was not “normal.” The average age of cervical cancer diagnosis in the United States is 48.
“But being exposed to the virus that causes cervical cancer in your teens or early 20s is very common,” she says.
HPV viruses (there are more than 100 related strains) cause almost all cases of cervical and anal cancers, according to the National Cancer Institute. HPV can also cause other cancers, including cancer of the mid-throat. Once someone is infected with HPV, they will carry it until the virus leaves their system – or doesn’t; there is no cure.
“We need to get the word out that we have a vaccine that can prevent cancer,” says Kathryn Moffett, head of the pediatric infectious diseases at West Virginia University School of Medicine.
“Giving the HPV vaccine is not about giving your child permission to be sexually active,” says Moffett. “Those are very important conversations to talk to your kid about making good choices, and waiting on things and being monogamous – those are all really important things. It’s about prevention – give it before anyone is even remotely considering doing anything. Give it at 11 and 12 when they get a really brisk response and they get a response to all the serotypes in the vaccine – then you are protected.”
Moffett says millions of doses of the vaccine have been given in the ten years since the vaccine was approved, but that West Virginia continues to experience low vaccination rates. There are no known serious side effects to the vaccine.
“Unfortunately, we are number one in HPV-related cervical cancer deaths and number four in HPV-related infections in the United States,” says Moffett. “That’s bad.”
Part of West Virginia’s high cervical cancer rates may be due to other risk factors. Smoking, for instance, increases the risk of cervical cancer, as does poverty and being overweight, according to the American Cancer Society.
Shelly Dusic was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2002 – four years before the first vaccine came out.
“The day the FDA approved the vaccine for HPV, I bawled like a baby,” says Dusic. “Because for the first time there was hope that no other woman had to go through what I went through, and no one should.”
According to the CDC, about 79 million Americans are infected with HPV. About 14 million people become newly infected each year, with no cure yet in sight.
Dusic is now 36 and hasn’t been sick since her surgery. She loves being well. But she says she still has trouble walking through the aisles of Walmart and passing the baby section.
“And I think about the things that that vaccine could have saved,” she says. “It would be worth it.”
Dusic is now a Health Information Specialist for the WV Breast and Cervical Cancer Screening Program, which has been partnering with the WV Immunization Network to try and increase HPV vaccination rates in Appalachia.
Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from the Benedum Foundation.