January is Cervical Health Month, a time to spread awareness about HPV, which impacts over 79 million Americans, and is a leading cause of cervical cancer. Unfortunately, this issue has not received a lot of coverage in mainstream media, as actress, freelance writer, and comprehensive sex ed activist Danielle Sepulveres has pointed out.
“January is almost half over and no lady editors have run anything substantial on cervical health awareness,” Danielle wrote in a tweet. She also spoke out about this disparity last month on her social media, which led me to ask Danielle to give her take on cervical health and help break the silence around Cervical Health Month.
Danielle is open about living with HPV, which she chronicles in her memoir Losing It: The Semi Scandalous Story Of An Ex-Virgin. This experience has motivated her to advocate for social justice and sexual health through Cervivor, as well as writing for online publications like Femsplain, Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, and the Washington Post. I asked Danielle about her take on cervical health, how we can expand access to prevention services, and the barriers teens face when accessing resources.
ERIN: How can teens who want to be vaccinated for HPV start a conversation with parents or a health care provider?
DANIELLE: I hope that one day a talk between teens and their parents about sex won’t be uncomfortable, but it is still an awkward thing in most families. It might be easier to talk to your healthcare provider first and tell them that you want Gardasil and you can broach the subject with your parents with a medical professional backing up what you want.
If it were me as a teen? I would tell my mom, “Look, I think it’s a good idea for me to get this vaccine because it protects against a specific type of cancer.” The argument that the vaccine promotes promiscuous behavior is false and it warrants bringing up that no one uses that argument about administering hepatitis vaccines to infants, because of course it’s a ridiculous notion.
ERIN: How can young people find factual, non-stigmatizing information about HPV online, especially for those who don’t have access to this information in sex education?
DANIELLE: First and foremost, Cervivor posts real stories from real women in part to break down the stigma that surrounds HPV. Tara Haelle on Twitter (@tarahaelle) is always posting accurate and important health information. Scarleteen has great information and lets you anonymously ask questions. Sexetc.org is another site that is great for comprehensive sex education and resources for teens and young adults.
ERIN: California has a health program that offers women under 27 all three Gardasil shots for free. How can programs like this improve cervical health?
DANIELLE: I think programs like this should exist everywhere because there are plenty of people who still don’t have health insurance and the reason why Planned Parenthood is so helpful to many is due to its low or no cost visits. Sometimes “free” is the impetus people need to do their research, ask the right questions, and take action. I think this health program is a step in the right direction.
ERIN: What are the barriers to accessing Gardasil that young people face? How can they use technology to overcome this?
DANIELLE: Well, probably just the typical barriers. Either no insurance, or insurance that doesn’t cover getting it. Possibly parents not agreeing to it. I would use the internet to find out where the shot might be getting administered for free or at a low cost. Look up Planned Parenthood and ask what can be done if there’s no insurance. Start a Change.org petition for your state to follow suit with California and offer it for free. If it were me, I might even reach out to Merck via email or social media and ask how they’d feel about setting up an event where young adults could come with or without their parents and learn more about the vaccine and possibly receive it.
Danielle and her organization Cervivor were exhibitors at last year’s YTH Live, the youth + tech + health conference. Join young leaders, health professionals, tech experts, and more on April 24-26, 2016 in San Francisco. >> register today
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