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"I am an example:" Northern Michigan woman shares HPV heartbreak during Cervical Cancer Month

NORTHWEST MICHIGAN - There is no treatment or cure for the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), an infection that is spread through genital contact and causes 75 percent of all cervical cancers. However, there are vaccines that can help to prevent young women and men from getting and spreading HPV.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 79 million Americans have HPV, with 14 million new cases each year. The virus rarely carries symptoms, so many people don't know they have it until potentially serious complications - such as cancer - arise later. Routine vaccination with three doses of the HPV vaccine is recommended for all 11 and 12-year-old boys and girls; vaccination is available through the Health Department of Northwest Michigan. Although the vaccine is most effective in younger people, it can still be given through age 26.

During Cervical Cancer Awareness Month this January, the Health Department talked with a 26-year-old Antrim County woman who had been diagnosed with HPV. The woman, who asked to remain anonymous, said she did not know about HPV or the vaccine until it was too late. Despite being a generally healthy person and having regular exams, the virus was just discovered last year, and it led her to have a hysterectomy.

"I am sharing my story with friends," she explained, adding that she strongly encourages all parents to have their children vaccinated. "I'm not a big 'vaccine' person… but I can tell you that I would have gotten this one, especially knowing what I know now, and what I have had to go through."

The message from the CDC is clear: HPV vaccination = cancer prevention. That's why the Health Department's child and adolescent health centers - the Hornet Health Center in Pellston, and the Ironmen Health Center in Mancelona - have launched an initiative to raise community awareness about cervical cancer and the HPV vaccine, and to increase immunization rates for males and females. Meanwhile, the young Antrim County woman says she hopes that sharing her story and encouraging vaccination might save someone else the heartbreak of HPV, the increased risk of cancer and her lost dreams of carrying children and having a family. "I am an example," she said.

The Health Department of Northwest Michigan is mandated by the Michigan Public Health Code to promote wellness, prevent disease, provide quality healthcare, address health problems of vulnerable populations, and protect the environment for the residents and visitors of Antrim, Charlevoix, Emmet, and Otsego Counties. Call (800) 432-4121 for more information about the HPV vaccine, or to schedule an appointment.