Hollings to bring cancer prevention to rural, medically underserved county

January 31, 2022
Dr. Marvella Ford and Melanie Slan stand outside
Marvella Ford, Ph.D., (left) and Melanie Slan (right) are leading efforts to improve HPV vaccination rates across South Carolina. Photo by Josh Birch


Children in certain South Carolina counties are more likely to develop human papillomavirus (HPV) related cancers as they grow up. It’s why MUSC Hollings Cancer Center is participating in a virtual town hall event with Cherokee County Schools in Upstate South Carolina to discuss the HPV vaccine. The town hall, to be held on Feb. 21 at 6 p.m., gives parents and students an opportunity to get their questions about the HPV vaccine answered by experts.

Cherokee County was selected due to its extremely low HPV vaccination rate. Only 19% of Cherokee County middle school students enrolled in 2021-2022 had received both recommended doses of the vaccine. That’s compared with 44% of middle school students who hadn’t received any doses of the HPV vaccine.

“We know that parents and students have legitimate questions about this vaccine,” said Marvella Ford, Ph.D., Hollings associate director of Population Science and Cancer Disparities. “This town hall allows us to speak truth that is backed up with science. We believe that we have a duty to bring cancer prevention methods to the communities who need them most. The HPV vaccine is one of the most effective resources we have available to us to prevent cancer.”

Ford said this and other town halls that will be held are part of Hollings’ efforts to raise vaccination rates. The town hall comes just two weeks before Hollings is set to take its new HPV vaccination van to middle schools in Cherokee County to provide the HPV vaccine to students and school staff under the age of 45, free of charge.

“Every year, HPV causes more than 30,000 cases of cancer in both men and women across the country,” Ford said. “With the HPV vaccine, over 90% of those cases can be prevented.”

HPV is linked to six different cancers, including cancers of the cervix, vagina, vulva, penis, anus and head and neck cancer. Melanie Slan, program manager in Hollings’ Office of Community Outreach and Engagement, said HPV vaccination is an important tool that could save lives. “We have a vaccine that is safe and effective in preventing multiple types of cancer,” Slan said. “If you could protect someone you love from cancer, wouldn’t you want to do it?”

Hollings is collaborating with Duke Health and the University of South Carolina to increase vaccination rates in Cherokee County. It's part of their collaborative school-based intervention to increase vaccine uptake among adolescents in the South, otherwise known as Project INVEST. Cherokee County was selected for Project INVEST due to low vaccination rates.

Sayward Harrison, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of South Carolina and researcher involved in Project INVEST, said work to improve HPV vaccination rates in Cherokee County began two years ago and was made possible through teamwork.

“The school nurses are the real superstars in this effort,” Harrison said. “They work diligently to get resources and information to families, to help get families connected to health care providers and to spread the news that the HPV vaccination protects children from cancer. We are excited to partner with Hollings and be able to actually deliver the HPV vaccines directly to the community.”

Mary Spanos-Beattie, coordinator of school health services in Cherokee County, said they are excited to bring the HPV vaccination to students and staff. “We want to ensure we are using all available resources to increase awareness of the importance of the HPV vaccine and provide convenient access to receive the vaccine,” she said. “Lack of access and inconvenience should not be a barrier for students to receive the HPV vaccine.”

It is important for parents to understand the importance of the HPV vaccine as a cancer prevention tool, Spanos-Beattie added. “Although the HPV vaccine is not a required school-entry vaccine, it is a significant vaccine in preventing various types of cancer.”

Bringing the HPV vaccine to rural communities continues Hollings’ aim to improve HPV vaccination rates across South Carolina. In 2016, fewer than 30% of South Carolinians were up-to-date on their HPV vaccination. In 2019, that number improved to 53%.

Ford said she is pleased with the progress made but understands the work is far from over. “When you look at vaccination rates, like the ones found in Cherokee County, you realize there are far too many people who haven’t accessed this cancer prevention tool,” she explained. “Our goal is to get as close to 100% of the population vaccinated against HPV as possible.”

Ford said the town hall will answer frequently asked questions about the vaccine’s effectiveness, safety and potential to prevent multiple types of cancer. The virtual event will be held on Zoom. To learn more about the HPV vaccine and Hollings’ vaccination initiatives, click here.