Monday, October 18, 2021

Dr. Tristen Geofert: Waiting to get the HPV shot is like waiting to get an abortion

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It is difficult to imagine a line longer than the serpentine stream of those waiting to get the shot that would save their lives — and yet the waiting continues.

At the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services, we have processed more than 85,000 applications for booster shots against the human papillomavirus, which can lead to cervical, vulvar and vaginal cancers. Though we cannot guarantee that every person in the state will have a vaccine, immunization is the best defense against sexually transmitted diseases, which affect everyone. In 2016, almost 2 million Virginians were given a free HPV shot against cancer. And thousands more are waiting to receive it.

I recently heard Sen. Joe Biden speak at an education lunch in Wilmington, Delaware. He is the current front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. As an avid runner and health advocate, he empathized with those of us getting ready to run long, slow miles to protect our families against cancer, when we sit in line, or endure searing pain, before we can get our shot. At our government job, we recognize the right of all American citizens to reach that elite level. So I drew on my understanding of the stakes, and a personal understanding of what it feels like to have cancer, and what it means to those who have not received a cervical cancer shot. I saw patients there who were 5, 10 and 15 years old, with dark-brown lesions covering their bodies. I was struck at how many of my colleagues had the same experience. It is hard to tell a patient that he or she did not need the vaccine because she or he is not pregnant, or because she is not a woman, or because she is already 36 years old, or because he or she is not in line for a booster. This reality motivates us to keep all of our procedures quick and accurate. In a line, and at our health department, it is best to wait your turn.

I am a family medicine doctor and a trained pediatrician. I am thankful to know many people well, and appreciate all they bring to the table. And I am struck by the determination of the patients who are now telling me they are waiting in line to receive a Cervarix booster shot. Many of them live in a world where they don’t go to the bathroom without a condom. They know that their partners, or children, may have contracted HPV. But they need and deserve protection from HPV, because HPV is part of the risk factors that lead to cervical cancer and genital warts.

To have that conversation with our patients in a doctor’s office takes strength and time, and can be intensely moving. I do not worry about what my colleagues, or what the president, may say. I know from first-hand experience that my patients are ready, willing and able to receive their vaccines, and ready to take responsibility for their own health. I am thankful to my patients and to our medical community, because an outbreak of cervical cancer would be devastating to all of us.

Tristen Geofert, MD, PhD, JD, is assistant director of the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services.

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