San Antonio has the worst human papilloma virus (HPV) immunization rate among Texas cities, with less than 60 percent of 13-year-old girls and less than 40 percent of 13-year-old boys in Bexar County being vaccinated.

Such low rates guarantee more disfiguring and often lethal cancers in years to come, and both private medicine and public health agencies must do more to deliver this life-saving vaccine to our youth.

To address HPV under-vaccination and other vaccination inequities, the University of the Incarnate Word School of Osteopathic Medicine (UIWSOM) has been spearheading school-based vaccination clinics on San Antonio’s South and West sides for the past two years. The success of this pilot program, especially in comparison to traditional public health and private approaches, has been remarkable.

In 2018, UIWSOM students and faculty administered 591 vaccines to 284 youth at four vaccination events at Southside and Southwest independent school districts. Of the vaccinations administered, 165 were HPV. Parental refusal rate was an astoundingly low 3 percent, compared to the 87 percent cited in traditional public and private clinical settings.

The HPV vaccine is the only cancer-preventing vaccine developed to date. It blocks HPV infections, which are very common, from causing cervical cancer in women and from causing head, neck, and anogenital cancer in both sexes. In widespread use for more than a decade, HPV vaccine has proven to be both safe and effective.

Since 2006, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended vaccinating children for HPV at age 11. Tragically, far too many children are still not getting vaccinated. The reasons for this include lack of information, misinformation, and inadequate outreach to populations most in need.

The HPV vaccine has been a difficult one to administer due to the misinformation that it promotes teenage sexual activity, its high price, and the two consecutive doses it requires, among others. Some actions aimed at addressing these concerns, such as free vaccines through the Centers for Disease Control’s Vaccine for Children program – have been successful, but UIWSOM believes reopening the conversation with parents and refocusing cancer prevention as the purpose of the HPV vaccine is also key.

The high HPV vaccination rates achieved at the UIWSOM clinics can be attributed to the time students and teachers spend answering parents and children’s questions that might otherwise not be addressed. Countering controversy and mistrust, UIWSOM aims to build trust.

These vaccine drives provide a space for patients to receive the necessary vaccinations free of charge while gaining an understanding of why they are recommended. UIW students also have the opportunity to learn how to check in patients, take histories, provide vaccine information, and connect with the community.

Organized in cooperations with the university’s School of Nursing, School of Pharmacy, and Ettling Center of Civic Leadership, University Health System as well as the office of Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3), the benefits to the community and UIW’s students and faculty are among the reasons these vaccine drives have and will continue to be successful.

UIW’s founding congregation, the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, began its ministry in North America to wipe out the cholera epidemic in 1867, and UIWSOM’s vaccine drives are yet another example of UIW’s continuing fidelity to that mission.

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Dr. Thomas Schlenker

Dr. Thomas Schlenker, former San Antonio Metropolitan Health District director (2011-2015), is a pediatrician who spent many years caring for sick children in Wisconsin and Mexico as well as directing...

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Dr. Anil Mangla

Dr. Anil Mangla is the director of public health and research at University of the Incarnate Word School of Osteopathic Medicine. He brings 15 years of international, state, and local government experience...

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Kaylyn Snook

Kaylyn Snook is a third-year medical student at the University of the Incarnate Word School of Osteopathic Medicine. She has an interest in preventative and community health and was part of a major drive...