URI research professor, colleagues launch campaign to fight cervical cancer

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HPV vaccine offered at Dr. Annie De Groot’s Clinica Esperanza, Aug. 14

KINGSTON, R.I. – July 30, 2015 – When a University of Rhode Island research professor and her colleagues launch a campaign to fight cervical cancer next month volunteers will be wearing colorful handmade scrubs.

Look closely at the medical tops and you’ll see images of the human papillomavirus, or HPV, that can cause the deadly cancer. The scrubs are African storytelling cloths, which are helping to wipe out the disease in Rhode Island.

The first of three shots of the HPV vaccine will be offered for free to uninsured men and women, ages 19 to 26, from 2 to 7 p.m., Aug. 14 at Clinica Esperanza/Hope Clinic, a free clinic at 60 Valley St., Providence.

Dr. Annie De Groot, clinic founder and director and a URI vaccine researcher, has been working closely with health officials in the West African country of Mali to screen women for cervical cancer.

With input from De Groot, Eliza Squibb, a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, designed an African storytelling cloth with images of the virus that men and women in Mali are wearing to show the connection between HPV and the prevention of cervical cancer. The project, funded by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has been a big success.

Now the African cloth is making its debut in Rhode Island.

Valerie Joseph, full-time nurse director of Clinica Esperanza, came up with the idea to launch the HPV prevention campaign at the clinic – and use the African cloth as a special touch. Joseph and other nurse volunteers giving the vaccine will wear scrubs made from the fabric.

It was a family affair: Valerie’s mother, Marguie Joseph, a respiratory therapist, sewed five shirts with the cloth, a bold blue and yellow print of uteruses surrounded by a near-invasion of HPV viruses in abnormal cancer cells.

The top has two front pockets and sleeves with slogans in French – “Je me protégé,” or “I am protected” – to spread the word about the importance of getting vaccinated. In Africa, cloths are like social media, conveying political and cultural messages.

Joseph says she decided to create the HPV program after realizing that many of her patients, both men and women, had not been vaccinated. She attributes that to lack of knowledge about how HPV can cause cancer and the stigma attached to the shot.

“Some parents thought the vaccine was a green light allowing their kids to be sexually active, but nothing is further from the truth,” she says. “We’re trying to save lives.”

De Groot has a longtime interest in fighting cervical cancer. Two years ago, URI pharmacy students volunteering at the clinic researched and wrote a report on the HPV vaccine, and the URI scientist has made many trips to Mali to oversee the campaign there. Cervical cancer is one of the most common cancers among women in Africa.

The Clinica Esperanza HPV initiative comes as the Rhode Island Department of Health moves to vaccinate adolescents against HPV. Boys and girls in the state are now required to start the HPV vaccine series before entering 7th grade. That’s when children have the strongest immune response to the vaccine.

In addition to 11 and 12 year olds, the state recommends HPV vaccination for males up to 21 years old (if they were not vaccinated when they were younger), and females up to 26 years old (if they were not vaccinated when they were younger).

Rhode Island’s push is part of a nationwide drive by doctors and health officials to get more people vaccinated after studies showed that many young people are not getting the shots. One way to increase the numbers is to make the vaccine more accessible, especially to men and women without health insurance.

Tricia Washburn, chief of the Office of Immunization in the Rhode Island Department of Health, praises Clinica Esperanza’s HPV program and the work of De Groot, Joseph and others at the clinic.

“Dr. De Groot is a true immunization leader in Rhode Island, and she’s proving it again with her work on HPV,” says Washburn. “By being such a strong advocate for HPV vaccination and working so diligently to eliminate barriers when it comes to access to vaccine, she is helping keep young people in our state safe from a very serious virus.”

Patricia Stout, an associate clinical professor in nursing at URI who is pursuing her doctorate in nursing practice, plans to volunteer at the clinic Aug. 14.

“The clinic’s vaccine program is a great way to prevent a very serious disease,” says Stout. “We have a vaccine available to protect people against a deadly cancer. We’d be remiss not to administer it.”

The vaccine is given in three shots. Patients at Clinica Esperanza will return for their second shot Oct. 16 and third one Feb. 12, 2015.

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States. Most infections clear up. When HPV doesn’t go away, it can cause serious health problems. Besides cervical cancer, the virus can lead to cancers of the throat and mouth.

Joseph says awareness about HPV and its link to cancer and other HPV-related cancers is lacking among low-income people with no insurance. She and De Groot are confident that the local campaign will make a difference.

“It’s so important to provide health services and preventive care to people who don’t have insurance, for whatever reason,” says Joseph. “We have a responsibility as a society to help those less fortunate.”

Registration to get the vaccine is required by calling 401-952-1571.

Clinica Esperanza is a free, largely volunteer clinic in Providence’s Olneyville neighborhood. The clinic offers treatment for chronic conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. It also offers classes on chronic disease management and nutrition, as well as support groups for victims of domestic violence. The walk-in clinic staffed by nurses is open Monday through Saturday.

Click here for more information about the clinic or to donate.

Photo above: Valerie Joseph, nurse director at Clinica Esperanza who organized an HPV vaccine campaign at the Providence clinic. Photo by Nora Lewis.