UPDATED 7/8 with University Beat audio report and additional quotes.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, over half of American girls ages 13 to 17 have received at least one dose of the vaccination to protect against the human papillomavirus (HPV) - and it's a rate that decreases over the needed second and third doses.
But here in Florida, the number of fully protected young women - those who have received all three doses - is only 25 percent, the lowest in the country.
And, at the same time, Florida has one of the highest rates of cervical cancer (8.2 per 100,000 women according to the CDC), one of the diseases the vaccination protects against. Research by the University of Miami Medical School says Hillsborough County's rate is higher, 9.5 per 100,000, while Pinellas County's is 7.4.
So U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa is joining with a coalition of health care providers from USF, Moffitt Cancer Center, BayCare Medical Group, Tampa Family Health Centers and county health departments to try to increase the number of young people vaccinated.
"We haven't found the cure for cancer, after you've contracted it, but if you can get three shots to prevent cervical cancer and oral cancers, that's revolutionary across the globe," Castor said at a news conference in Tampa June 30th. "And other countries have done a better job than we have here in America at making sure that young people are vaccinated."
"There's one bottom line here, which is that we have an unprecedented opportunity to prevent multiple cancers, in both males and females, with one vaccine," according to Dr. Anna Giuliano, a Moffitt researcher who has received several large grants to study HPV infection among women and men.
There is resistance to the shots. Some opponents say that since many of the cancers and other diseases that HPV causes are sexually transmitted, the vaccine gives their child a license to be sexually active.
"As the mother of teenage daughters, I was flabbergasted that a presidential candidate here in the Tampa Bay area would say 'do not have your children vaccinated to prevent cancer, do not have them vaccinated for HPV' and spreading misinformation," Castor said.
She aims to combat that with medical evidence.
"Parents are starved for real information, and they of course, if they understood that this is an anti-cancer vaccine, they would rush to the doctor's office to make sure their kids are getting vaccinated," Castor said.
Giuliano, who recently co-wrote an editorial on the topic for The Tampa Tribune, worries that this aversion to vaccinations is growing, pointing to an increasing number of outbreaks of measles and whooping cough.
"Americans feel that they are immune. We haven't seen these diseases in a long time, and because we haven't, we don't think we need to continue with our public health measures to continue to prevent those diseases with vaccines," Giuliano said.
The coalition will attempt to get the word out around Hillsborough and Pinellas counties about the safety and efficacy of the vaccinations.
Graduate students with USF Public Health will present both families and Tampa Bay area medical professionals with information at office visits and health fairs. The hope is the number of students receiving the shots will begin increasing during back-to-school check-ups this summer.
"To see that young people like myself are going out there and getting involved and getting parents to be involved with their children, and really educating (them), I think it’s great," USF Public Health masters student Taylor Caragan said. "And I really think that USF does a wonderful job, especially the College of Public Health."
"We're in the community, in (the) Family Health concentration," she added, "and...every professor is just always working to get us involved, to get us more active in the community."
Castor points out that the cost of the shots shouldn't be a barrier for families.
"It's covered by private insurance if you have it or if you're on Florida KidCare or Medicaid it's covered," Castor said. "And if you do not have health insurance, the public health department provides those vaccines for free."
"This is an opportunity I think we've all been waiting for," Giuliano added, "which is to prevent cancer very simply and efficiently."