Students talk Operation WipeOut with the National Cancer Institute

Published 10:30 am Saturday, May 11, 2024

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Health Sciences students from LaFayette and Valley High School met with state and national representatives of Operation WipeOut, the effort to reduce rates of cervical cancer.

The students met with members of the National Cancer Institute’s Center to Reduce Cancer Health Disparities (CRCHD) and the doctors and students from the University of Alabama Birmingham (UAB), who have partnered with the students throughout the year. 

For the past year, Chambers County HOSA students have worked on public health initiatives to spread awareness of the disease and preventative measures their fellow teenagers can take. The same week as the meeting, the schools held an HPV drive for students who had parent permission slips.

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Dr. LeeAnn Bailey and Dr. Sarah Szurek from CRCHD came to both high schools to discuss the efforts the HOSA students have taken throughout the year for Operation WipeOut. Bailey’s first question was about what the students enjoyed most when working on public health projects.

The overwhelming response was working with the community. The students enjoyed getting to interact with Valley students as well as reaching people outside of the school buildings to spread awareness. 

One of the main efforts of the operation is to get more people vaccinated against HPV. Bailey said that misconceptions about the vaccine often lead to parents not giving consent to get protected. 

“We have noticed that many parents or other figures of authority think that the vaccination is like a free pass to start being sexually active,” Bailey said, then asking how the young students had those tough conversations with their peers. 

The health science students acknowledged that those conversations were hard to have. Although one student put it simply, saying, “We are never going to stay this age, we are getting older…You do need to get the shot before you turn a certain age. So just go ahead and get it out of the way, so you are not too late and end up with cancer.”

In a telling question from Dr. Bruce Busby, who is involved in the program, he asked, “Before you started this project, were y’all aware of what HPV was?”

The students quickly chorused a “no.”

The students then got a chance to ask the experts questions. Mainly, the students wanted to know more about Operation WipeOut. Many were curious if HPV vaccination rates are increasing due to the work they are doing. 

“We are still in the process of tabulating that but I think the answer is yes. It’s just not at the rate that we would like it to be. We’d like to be able to see 80 to 90% vaccination,” Bailey said. “When you enroll you have a whole list of the vaccinations that are required. We’d love to be able to see HPV beyond that right as a requirement. That’s the case in some states, just not in Alabama.”

Afterward, Dr. Isabel Scarinci, one of the leaders in the HOSA classrooms, discussed the role the kids play. 

“[The project] is a lot of the education. The posters that you have seen in the schools, they developed the logo, they developed the messages, they developed the target audience and the slogan,” Scarinci said. 

She added that the role of the parents is equally if not more important in the future of their child’s health.

“I think our challenge has been for parents to provide the consent. The importance of parents getting the information and making an informed decision, and we are not telling any parents you need to vaccinate their kids… But make an informed decision, and whatever that is, we will respect that,” Scarinci said.

Alabama has one of the highest rates of cervical cancer in the county, ranking 50 percent higher than the rest of the United States. Chambers County has the highest cervical cancer mortality rates in the state.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, almost all cervical cancers are caused by Human Papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted disease. HPV is incredibly prevalent and most people will contract it at some point in their life. The best way to protect yourself from HPV and cervical cancers is by getting vaccinated for HPV. 

The CDC recommends the vaccination take place between the ages of 9 and 12 years old, with two doses administered. However, three doses can be administered to those who were not vaccinated before the age of 15, the “catch-up” vaccination schedule is recommended through the age of 26.