Every two minutes, a woman dies of cervical cancer.
With only a few weeks left to live, Michele Baldwin had a dream. She wanted the world to know that other women didn’t have to die from the disease that was about to take her life: cervical cancer. Because cervical cancer is almost completely preventable but it kills more than 260,000 women worldwide.
HPV is so common that nearly all sexually active men and women get it at some point in their lives.
Most women infected with HPV (that’s virtually all sexually active women) will get rid of the virus on their own, but approximately 10% of them won’t. These women will develop cervical dysplasia, or precancerous changes of the cells on the cervix. Early stages of cervical dysplasia are very treatable, but women 21 years and older must go for their scheduled pap smears and HPV test to identify if they fall into the 10%. Then, depending on the stage of dysplasia (CIN 1,2,3), a variety of procedures can reduce or remove the precancerous cells.
Left unchecked, cervical dysplasia can evolve into cervical cancer. Most cervical cancers take years to develop, but in some cases, like in the case of my friend Kelly Pozzoli, it can progress a lot faster and be deadly. Three months after getting a clear pap smear, a 4.5 centimeter tumor was discovered on Kelly’s cervix. Kelly died on World Cancer Day, at the age of 33 years old.
The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends that women younger than 21 years of age do not get pap smears or HPV screenings. So how can sexually active woman under 21 years old be protected? The answer is the HPV vaccine.
The HPV vaccine is recommended for preteen boys and girls at age 11 and 12 to protect them when they have the best antibody response, for when they will be sexually active as adults. Just like the Hepatitis B vaccine, another sexually transmitted infection, it is given to kids.
It’s important to vaccinate boys because they are part of the transmission equation, but also because HPV infections can cause anal cancer, throat cancer, and genital warts in both men and women, as well as vaginal, and vulvar cancers in women and penile cancer in men. It’s estimated than more than 16 million americans have HPV in their mouths, mostly men. HPV can easily be transmitted from the genitals to the mouth and vice versa.
So the HPV vaccine is a cancer vaccine, but how safe is it?
When we met Kelly and Michele and decided to make documentaries about their lives and their condition, my co-producer Mark Hefti and I approached the topic of HPV vaccination objectively because we knew literally nothing about it. As documentarians, we were going to report the truth, no matter where it took us. This was especially important because I have two young daughters and I had to determine if HPV vaccination was the right thing to do for my family. Here is what we found:
Every independent medical expert and scientist we interviewed told us that the HPV vaccine is one of the safest vaccines on the market. But nothing is 100% safe! For example, according to CNN’s Sanjay Gupta “12 out of 10,000 people who take an aspirin are at risk of intracerebral hemorrhage”. Yet, most people don’t think twice when they take an aspirin for a headache. The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA, a government agency), is in charge of running the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP), which allows individuals to file a petition for compensation when they believe they have been injured by a vaccine. From 2006 to 2014, more than 77 million doses of the HPV vaccine have been administered in the U.S. 181 claims for compensation were filed. 92 were dismissed and 89 were compensated for. Compensation does not necessarily prove the injury was caused by the vaccine, but it does mean it couldn’t be proved otherwise.
So there is a 0.0001% of chance that an HPV vaccination may cause an injury worth compensating for (approx. 1 in a Million).
These are the odds I evaluated as a father:
1 in 10 chance of cervical dysplasia vs. 1 in a Million potential injury from the HPV vaccine.
This is a no-brainer for my family, but I encourage every parent out there to do the same research and determine for themselves if protecting their children against 6 cancers is worth the 0.0001% chance of potential injury.
Some rare side effects of the HPV vaccine are pain where the shot was administered and faintness, but when you compare this to what Kelly had to go through to try and stay alive, it pales in comparison.
Here’s Kelly after her last ditch surgery to save her life. Warning, this is hard to look at but it is something Kelly wanted people to see. She was one of the most courageous people I have ever met.
Kelly and Michele had a chance to speak on the phone and we also recorded this extraordinary moment on camera.
When Michele was told by her doctors that there was nothing else they could do for her, she decided to harness her remaining energy to go to India and paddle 1,000 kilometers down the Ganga River as a way of raising awareness of the need for cervical-cancer screening and vaccination, a final act of courage that has started a movement to eliminate cervical cancer on the planet.
When Michele heard Kelly’s circumstances on the phone, she sobbed. Not for herself, but for Kelly and the millions of women she wanted to save. Michele would die just a few shorts weeks after her conversation with Kelly, but she hoped that her story and these films would educate and inspire women to rise up and demand protection from this preventable cancer.
In a few days, her dream will come true as we will be screening an 18 min short film called Lady Ganga: Nilza’s Story which documents Michele’s journey and death at the United Nations this Thursday, Feb 4 at 6 PM est. Everyone is invited to attend, you simply have to RSVP before tomorrow’s deadline Feb 1st. You can also watch the event live at Ladyganga.org
The film will be translated and dubbed into the 60 most spoken languages around the world.
For us, this World Cancer Day is Kelly and Michele’s day. Michele died on Feb 5th, in the middle of the night. Just a few hours after Kelly, a couple years prior… and like Kelly, she wanted us to film it all to help every woman around the world.