A young woman is vaccinated
A young woman receives a vaccination. Courtesy Pixabay

Normally at this time of year, commentaries and news features alike are filled with back-to-school reminders and reflections. It is our familiar circadian rhythm across the country. Among school’s many essential functions for our nation’s kids (and all of us) is a reminder for vaccinations, echoed by pediatricians in every community.

At the time of this writing, the view of our vaccination activity across the country is grim. A recent investigation conducted by the Scientific American of all 50 states’ vaccination rates revealed plummeting figures of essential childhood vaccinations, with one expert noting that “getting immunizations back on track is critical to staving off an epidemic of vaccine-preventable diseases.”

Globally, UNICEF and WHO jointly rang the alarm bell in mid-July, forecasting a threat to the hard-won progress of essential vaccine uptake around the world. Vaccination, acknowledged by many as one of the most significant achievements of the 20th century, is at risk around the globe.

Our growing knowledge of the novel coronavirus, its transmission, and the nature of our immunity to it, is being pieced together in real time through the media. Fear and speculation over our current pandemic crisis is eroding trust in one of our greatest public health achievements. As fall approaches, bringing flu season and increased anxiety over the coming phases of the coronavirus pandemic, each of us can step up as vaccine advocates, educators, and quite simply, reminders.

Vaccines are the staples of our public health, the essential keys to living safely among each other in our modern world. We need to vocally support the incredible advances that have transformed the way we live together as a species around the world.

I would be remiss in a plea for improving vaccine rates if I did not emphasize the importance of raising HPV vaccine rates in communities across the country, including right here in San Diego. The HPV vaccine creates immunity against nine of the deadliest strains of human papillomavirus, an incredibly common family of viruses. The deadliest strains of this virus caused almost 35,000 cancer cases in the United States last year alone.

Globally, 630,000 cases of HPV-related cancers are diagnosed each year, and an incredibly high number are diagnosed in low- and middle-income countries. The power of cancer prevention in all communities, especially where access to cancer drugs and treatment may be entirely out of reach, is absolutely critical.

Here in California, we came together for the 2nd Annual California HPV Vaccine Week during Aug. 3-8, a project of the California HPV Vaccination Roundtable and a means to raise critical awareness for the HPV vaccine. Before the pandemic, the roundtable’s data group estimated we were leaving 1 million of our Californian adolescents woefully exposed to infection. With all vaccinations at risk of losing ground, this tool for cancer prevention has never been more important. We do not have the luxury of time.

I care about this vaccine, and all vaccines, because I have witnessed the suffering and trauma of vaccine-preventable illness. In this case, it is the illness of cancer, one of the cruelest.

The co-founder of the Immunotherapy Foundation, Ralph Whitworth, lost his life battling metastatic cancer, driven by a high-risk strand of HPV. Last summer, his son Doug received his first dose of the HPV vaccine. In Doug’s words, it was important for him to get the vaccine so that he “would not die that way,” and so that he “could be there for my kids for their whole life.” As their family prepares for another school year to start without their father, the void left from Ralph’s passing is keenly felt.

What if preventing cancer was as simple as getting a few shots? We aren’t there yet for most cancer types, but for those HPV can cause, it is the best defense we can get. Let’s use it.

Margaux Stack-Babich is the program manager at the nonprofit Immunotherapy Foundation in San Diego.