March 23, 2007

NYSUT conference explores issues for health professionals

Source: New York Teacher
Caption: Presenter Ellen McTigue of the Health Care Professionals Council, left, goes over facts with Yvette Solomon of the UFT.

A big dose of sensitivity and a dash of fright.

That's often the recipe for health professionals in these times. NYSUT's annual Professional Issues Forum on Health Care added a big helping of information.

Workshops for hospital nurses, visiting nurses, psychologists, pharmacists, school nurses as well as a range of school personnel - including counselors, teachers and coaches - featuring such hot-button issues as "understanding and dealing with individuals who self-harm," "safe oxygen administration," and "dyspraxia - development coordination disorders."

One session let participants discuss the latest developments with a common, sexually transmitted virus linked to cervical cancer, the human papillomavirus.

HPV has been making headlines because a vaccination was recently approved by the Centers for Disease Control and recommended for girls ages 11 and 12, before the onset of sexual activity. Additionally, females between 13 and 26 are being recommended for vaccination, which involves three doses over a six-month period.

"The younger you are when receiving (the vaccination), the higher the antibody response," said presenter Ellen McTigue, a member of NYSUT's Health Care Professionals Council and a gynecology oncology nurse at Downstate Medical Center. McTigue has been tracking virus information for a decade. There is even a proposal to mandate the vaccine.

"Professionally, we are very excited about the vaccine," she said, noting the impact in recent decades of vaccinations for diphtheria, influenza and polio. In her work, she has treated many cases of cervical cancer "that have devastated women in the prime of their life."

Proceed with caution

However, McTigue said, aggressive marketing of the vaccine has scared people off.

"The national conversation about this vaccine is just beginning," she said. "Many professionals feel the mandate is premature ... They should back off on mandatory vaccination and give people time to assimilate the information."

The HCPC had earlier received a briefing on the vaccine from Lynn Pollock of the state Health Department's Bureau of Communicable Disease Control.

People at risk are those who make early sexual debuts and have more than one sexual partner, McTigue said. Sexual activity, she reminded her audience, can include many things other than penetration.

While the Pap smear can screen for cancer, a vaccination could prevent it.

With HPV, infections lead to invisible micro-lesions. Most people do not even know they have HPV, so it can be transmitted unknowingly. Men carry the virus on their skin, usually in the genital area.

Most types of HPV are harmless and go away on their own; others are low risk and can cause genital warts; others are high risk and can lead to cervical cancer.

Many women with cervical cancer were most likely exposed to a high-risk type of the virus during their teens and 20s, according to the American Journal of Medicine. McTigue said a sampling done 10 years ago showed "99 percent of cervical cancer patients had the high-risk HPV."

In 2005, about 20 million Americans had genital HPV - about half are sexually active adolescents and young adults - and more than 6 million new cases are diagnosed in this country every year, according to the CDC.

Middle school surveys by the CDC show nearly 20 percent of students have had sex by the eighth grade, and nearly 10 percent have had more than one partner. By age 16, 40 percent are sexually active, and by 18, 70 percent.

McTigue presented to a roomful of health care providers eager for information - the people who need to accurately respond to questions and needs of students.

The council's goal, said Chairwoman Anne Goldman, is to make "proactive interventions."

"Our work is to articulate the needs our members express," said Goldman, a New York City nurse.

NYSUT Vice President Kathleen Donahue stressed the union's role in legislative and policy advocacy. For instance, NYSUT seeks passage of a bill in the Legislature to mandate a nurse in every school building as a "basic right."

She pledged the union's support in keeping the State University of New York's three teaching hospitals "open and accessible," rejecting mandatory overtime for hospital nurses and protecting nurses against the "constant pressure of deprofessionalizing," which makes hospitals "less safe."

- Liza Frenette

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