Skip to main content

Bringing a Cancer Prevention Vaccine to Rural Communities

The human papillomavirus (HPV) is a group of common viruses that can cause cancer. Although there is no way to fully prevent the viruses, an HPV vaccine can prevent the cancers. HPV can cause mouth, throat, cervical, vulvar, vaginal, penile, and anal cancers. Because HPV is a widespread disease, the vaccine is recommended for everyone, regardless of whether someone is sexually active. This means that access to and education about the HPV vaccine has never been more important.

"Education is a key factor," says Kelly Sugihara, a coordinator for Wyoming Cancer Resource Services. The program is based at Memorial Hospital of Sweetwater County, an affiliate hospital of Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI). HCI partners with five hospitals in four states outside of Utah to bring cutting-edge research, treatment, and prevention to cancer care throughout the Mountain West. "Wyoming is a unique state in that it is so rural," Kelly adds. "There are approximately 125 miles between counties." In her role, Kelly creates ways to educate and spread the word about the HPV vaccine across several counties in Wyoming. Her programs cover 25,672 miles.

Unlike cities, some Wyoming towns and communities only have one physician. Moreover, some clinics do not carry the HPV vaccine. This leaves people with limited options, such as traveling a distance to the public health department—which requires time, money, and commitment.

Kelly works with clinics, state leaders, schools, public health professionals, dentists, and others to increase accessibility and education about the HPV vaccine. "Some of our public health departments go between two large counties and may only have four employees," Kelly says. She adds that many departments find themselves very busy with so much ground to cover and so few staff members. "So you have to find a champion within that public health department."

One of Kelly's biggest projects is implementing the vaccine within public schools. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend routine vaccination at age 11 or 12, but the age range varies from nine to 26 years old—and beyond, pending a conversation with your doctor.

"I’ve been working to get the school nurses on board to implement vaccination," Kelly says. She’s partnered with a science teacher who uses the opportunity to explain how the viruses function in the body. Kelly has also spoken at parent-teacher nights. These partnerships provide access and education. They make it possible for parents to get their children vaccinated without driving to the public health department.

"Getting the word out in the community is something we are doing whenever we have the opportunity," says Tasha Harris, CMD, director of Sweetwater Regional Cancer Center and a member of the HCI Community Advisory Board. "And we always make the HPV vaccine part of our presentation because we know how important it is."

To learn more about HCI’s ongoing work to prevent cancer, see our Intermountain West HPV Vaccination Coalition.