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Reducing a High Cancer Rate in Appalachia

American Cancer Society

Virginia has one of the lowest cancer rates in the country, but in some parts of the Commonwealth, for a certain form of cancer, the rate is among the highest.

More women in southwestern Virginia get cervical cancer, and more die from it, than in other parts of the country. But, for one of its most common forms, caused by the Human Papilloma Virus or HPV, there’s a vaccine that’s been available for the last 10 years that prevents it entirely.

“We know that it works. Our biggest challenge right now is getting it out to folks at risk and that’s in the entire population.”

Jess Malpas is a nurse scientist at the University of Virginia. She’s a point person in an upcoming 5-year study of Human Papilloma virus prevention. “Upwards of fifty per-cent of people are exposed at any given time. And this vaccine is one of the only forms of prevention we have, in terms of a vaccine for cancer, which makes it a really unique”.  

Exposure to HPV can happen during sexual intercourse. The majority of people exposed to it will clear the infection from their bodies on their own. But Malpass points out, people who smoke, don’t clear it as easily, because nicotine inhibits that process.

UVA is partnering with local health systems in rural Appalachian regions in Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia to offer free services to help people quit smoking, free self-testing kits and free HPV vaccines.

“We’ll be hiring folks that live in the communities to work to coordinate the trials. We feel strongly that this can’t be a swoop in or swoop out.  We believe sustained engagement is the best approach.

That hiring process is now underway.

Robbie Harris is based in Blacksburg, covering the New River Valley and southwestern Virginia.