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Lofty goals: States in the Mid-South and Southeast have the highest incidence and deaths from HPV-related cancers — and the lowest HPV vaccination rates. Heather Brandt, PhD (at left), and Andrea Stubbs aim to change those statistics.

HPV: Prevention is Key

The new St. Jude HPV Cancer Prevention Program seeks to increase HPV vaccination rates to help reduce the number of deaths from six types of cancer.

By Mike O’Kelly; Photos by Ann-Margaret Hedges and Justin Veneman

 

You’ve probably seen the brochures tucked inside the plastic sleeves that hang on the wall of the pediatrician’s office. Or you’ve seen a few TV ads and wondered if the topic was relevant to yourself or your children.

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is more common than you might think. Nearly 80 million people in the U.S. are infected with the virus. That’s 1 in 4 Americans. More than 36,000 of those will be diagnosed with one of six HPV-related cancers this year. But the brochures and ads have a simple call to action: “HPV vaccination is cancer prevention.”

Ten-year-old Annabelle Murray has been a patient at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital since she was 3 months old. Annabelle has spent much of her life undergoing treatment for severe chronic neutropenia. When her mother, Rachael, learned that Annabelle could receive the HPV vaccine at St. Jude, her decision was easy.

“I knew the HPV vaccine helps prevent against a number of adult cancers,” Rachael says. “She has been through so much already. I don’t want her to experience something later in life that could have been prevented.”

 
Heather Brandt

Heather Brandt, PhD

On the map

Heather Brandt, PhD, cringes when she looks at two maps of the United States.

The first shows regions with the highest incidence and deaths from HPV-related cancers. The second displays HPV vaccination percentages. Together, the maps reveal a grim picture for states in the Mid-South and Southeast. Those states rank last on both maps.

St. Jude sits in the heart of that region — a major factor in Brandt’s decision to join the hospital to direct the new HPV Cancer Prevention Program.

“Part of our work is raising awareness about the HPV vaccine. It is safe, effective and durable,” says Brandt, a social and behavioral scientist. “Our goal is to reduce HPV-associated cancer deaths locally and nationally by driving up vaccination rates.”

Much of that work occurs through education, awareness and partnerships. Andrea Stubbs, who has worked at St. Jude for 14 years building community partnerships in the hospital’s HIV Prevention and Care Program, will use that experience in her new role as administrative director of the HPV program.

“I plan to invite parents, administrators, clinicians and community partners to have a conversation,” Stubbs says. “We can discuss the risks associated with HPV and the impact of HPV vaccines to prevent cancer.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention routinely recommends HPV vaccination for both girls and boys at age 11 or 12. Children as young as 9 and up to 14 can receive two doses of the vaccine. Adolescents and young adults ages 15 to 26 receive three doses. Adults age 27 to 45 should discuss HPV vaccination with their health care provider to determine if it is right for them.

“We want to make sure people have the right information but also ensure they know how to act on it,” Brandt says.

Our goal is to reduce HPV-associated cancer deaths locally and nationally by driving up vaccination rates.

Heather Brandt, PhD

Blue skies on the horizon

Part of the hospital’s Comprehensive Cancer Center, the St. Jude HPV Cancer Prevention Program stemmed from the hospital’s blue-sky process. This program encourages employees to submit novel proposals that could transform science and medicine.

The question asked was, “What if we could prevent adult cancers by vaccinating children?” The initiative received support and approval, using the St. Jude platform to help increase HPV vaccination rates.

In 2018, St. Jude joined other National Cancer Institute (NCI)–designated cancer centers in the American Cancer Society’s effort to eliminate HPV-related cancers. St. Jude aims to increase the number of children who are vaccinated and reduce HPV-related cancers in the region.

“At St. Jude, we use every tool at our disposal — including chemotherapy, radiation, surgery and immunotherapy — to strive to cure each child’s cancer. But in the case of HPV-related cancers, the need for these therapies could be avoided because these cancers can be prevented in the first place with HPV vaccination,” says Charles Roberts, MD, PhD, St. Jude Comprehensive Cancer Center director and executive vice president.

 
Patient Annabelle and her mother

“I knew the HPV vaccine helps prevent against a number of adult cancers,” says Rachael Murray about her daughter, Annabelle. “She has been through so much already. I don’t want her to experience something later in life that could have been prevented.”

Building bridges

Brandt and her St. Jude team work with partners to strengthen existing efforts, implement programs and increase vaccination rates.

“HPV-related cancers are recognized as the most preventable cancers,” says Rochelle Roberts, co-facilitator of HPV Cancer Free Tennessee. “With targeted efforts to increase the vaccination rates for children, teens and adults, we can decrease HPV-related cancer mortality rates in Tennessee. We are excited about our partnership with the St. Jude HPV Cancer Prevention Program.”

St. Jude is also working with a coalition called ImmunizeTN.

“Our goal is to get every eligible person in the state vaccinated with the HPV vaccine to prevent cancer,” says Dee Sinard, MD, co-chair of that organization. “Having St. Jude on board to assist our efforts strengthens our messages across Tennessee.”

Brandt serves on the National HPV Vaccination Roundtable, a collaboration of 70 organizations coordinated by the American Cancer Society. St. Jude will take a leading role in the Southeast.

“We are excited to work with Dr. Brandt and St. Jude,” says Debbie Saslow, PhD, managing director of HPV and GYN Cancers for the American Cancer Society. “With St. Jude taking on a leadership role, this allows the great work in the southeastern region to continue.”

The road ahead

The St. Jude HPV Cancer Prevention Program faces many challenges — vaccine hesitancy, misinformation and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Brandt is realistic yet optimistic about these hurdles. She says the hospital’s commitment to the program mirrors her optimism.

“I am inspired by the possibilities that become reality at St. Jude,” Brandt says. “It is a great privilege to have the opportunity to lead this new program focused on preventing HPV cancers.”

 
 

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