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UTEP Partnership Offers Dose of Cancer Prevention

Last Updated on April 16, 2018 at 12:00 AM

Originally published April 16, 2018

By Laura L. Acosta

UTEP Communications

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that there are 31,500 newly diagnosed cases of cancers caused by human papillomavirus, or HPV, infections each year in the United States. But adults have a shot at preventing HPV-related cancers if they get vaccinated against the infection during childhood or adolescence.

Martha Villaseñor and Marina Ramirez.
Martha Villaseñor, a Ventanilla de Salud community health worker specialist, and UTEP social work alumna Marina Ramirez are EdTech-HPV project coordinators at the Mexican Consulate in El Paso. EdTech-HPV is a partnership between UTEP, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK) and the Mexican Consulate in El Paso’s “Ventanilla de Salud” health care program. Photo: Laura Trejo / UTEP Communications

That is why Karen Del Rio Guzman, a health promotion senior at The University of Texas at El Paso, plans to vaccinate her two-year-old daughter against HPV when the time is right. The American Cancer Society recommends that the cancer preventive vaccine be given to girls and boys starting at age 11 or 12 up to adults age 26. 

“Ideally people should get the vaccine before they become sexually active and exposed to HPV,” said Del Rio Guzman, a research assistant in UTEP’s Department of Public Health Sciences. “As parents, it is important to educate our children to protect today’s young people from future HPV-related cancers.”

In an effort to help parents make an informed decision about vaccinating their children, UTEP’s Department of Social Work has partnered with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK) and the Mexican Consulate in El Paso’s “Ventanilla de Salud” health care program to launch the EdTech-HPV education and technology project.

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S. The CDC found that 14 million people, including teens, become infected with HPV each year. While most HPV infections clear up, some lead to cervical cancer and other cancers.

“I was aware of the HPV vaccine because of my classes, however, I never understood the challenges people in the community face to receive it,” Del Rio Guzman said. “For many it is difficult to get transportation to health clinics, and bringing the service to the community is more convenient. Others are not informed about the vaccine, however while seeking other services they learn about it at the health fairs.”

HPV Education 101

EdTech-HPV is a multiple site, community-based project operating in Mexican Consulates in New York City, Las Vegas, Chicago and El Paso that aims to increase HPV vaccination rates among children of Mexican immigrants through education and text messaging.  

The project will look at barriers to HPV vaccination in underserved populations, such as lack of transportation, cost or inadequate information about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine.

Funded by the National Institutes of Minority Health and Health Disparities, the five-year project is led by Abraham Aragones, M.D., a physician and public health researcher at MSK’s Immigrant Health and Cancer Disparities Service. Eva Moya, Ph.D., UTEP social work interim chair and associate professor, is the site principal investigator in El Paso. 

“This is an interprofessional community-driven project that allows for a lot of education to be done in the community,” Moya said.

Starting in March, EdTech-HPV project coordinators Martha Villaseñor, a Ventanilla de Salud community health worker specialist, and UTEP social work alumna Marina Ramirez, began to recruit parents of HPV vaccine-eligible children between the ages of 11 and 17 to participate in the project at the Mexican Consulate in El Paso.

Interested parents will receive information about HPV, the vaccine’s benefits, and referrals to local services like the City of El Paso’s Department of Public Health, Texas Tech and Project Vida that offer the HPV vaccination to children for free or at a low cost.

Villaseñor said that although many parents are uncomfortable talking about topics related to sexual behavior, most are grateful for the information.

“This is taboo,” Villaseñor explained before giving a presentation on HPV at the consulate. “Some people get uncomfortable when you talk about the body’s private parts and they look up at the ceiling or turn around. But others are very interested and they come to us and ask questions and want more information because people are afraid of the risks. They say, ‘How am I going to expose my daughter or my son if I can do something about it?’”

A Shot at Prevention

The HPV vaccination is a series of shots – two for ages 11 to 14 and three for 15 to 26-year-olds – administered over six to 12 months. According to the CDC, receiving the full vaccination series could prevent 90 percent of HPV-related cancers.

After the first dose, parents will receive text messages reminding them of follow-up shots. Once the series is complete, parents will forward a picture of the shot record to researchers, who will compare vaccination rates at the different sites.

Although El Paso has a 66 percent HPV vaccination rate - the highest in Texas and higher than every state except Rhode Island – males in Texas and the rest of the U.S. were less likely than females to be up to date on HPV vaccines.  

“I think we’re going to find that most of the young ladies have already been vaccinated against HPV because most of them are vaccinated in the 5th grade in Mexico,” said Marina Ramirez, who earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in social work from UTEP. “But boys run a high risk because they also need to be vaccinated. A lot of people used to think this is a women’s problem. So this is helping to shift the focus and say, ‘This is everybody’s problem.’”

HPV is a vaccine preventable infection than can be largely eliminated in the U.S., but only if vaccine completion rates are improved, said Aragones, the project’s leader.

One of the Healthy People 2020 objectives is to increase HPV vaccine completion rates to 80 percent for females ages 13 to 15 by 2020.

“If we reach our goal of vaccinating 80 percent of children, we could prevent over 30,000 cases of cancer in the future,” Aragones said. “The HPV vaccine’s purpose is to prevent cancer. If in 10 years a woman dies from cervical cancer, that should not have happened. It’s in our hands to prevent HPV-related cancers.”

Aragones will speak about his HPV-related research at the El Paso Immunization Coalition (EPIC) 2018 Conference in El Paso on April 27, and at the Sexual, Reproductive Health and HPV Workshop for Community Health Workers in the Health Sciences and Nursing Building on April 28.

To learn more about EdTech-HPV, click here to watch a video about the project. It features information from experts, health advocates and personal stories from people in the community, including Karen Del Rio Guzman.