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Healthy Savannah Awarded $150,000 Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Vaccination Equity Initiative Grant to Prevent Certain Cancers

(SAVANNAH, Ga.) Cervical cancer rates in Georgia average about 8 per 100,000 women, slightly higher than the national average. But cervical cancer incidence rates in some Georgia counties are even higher, and among Black women, mortality rates are almost 1.5x as high as White women.

Georgia additionally ranks 30th in the nation for its human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine coverage rate of 61.5%. Research suggests if the coverage rate rose to 90%, HPV-related cervical cancer could be drastically reduced, especially among communities that may have experienced institutional and structural racism, leading to mistrust in health systems.

In February 2024, CHC: Creating Healthier Communities, a Virginia organization committed to better health and well-being and addressing the barriers to equity, recognized that Healthy Savannah was well equipped to lead the way to promote vaccine equity in preventing certain HPV-related cancers in the Savannah area. The 70-year-old organization awarded the local non-profit a one-year $150,000 HPV Vaccination Equity Initiative grant to foster new and expanded community-driven solutions addressing factors that negatively impact access to HPV-related cancer prevention interventions for disproportionately affected local populations.

Since 2018, Healthy Savannah has been at the forefront of health equity initiatives as co-administrator of two five-year collaborative Racial & Ethnic Approaches to Community Health (REACH) grants totaling $8.5 million. During the first grant period (2018-2023), Healthy Savannah and co-administrator YMCA of Coastal Georgia worked toward improving access to nutritious food, systemic change to create safe places for physical activity, and easy access to local resources through the website The work expanded with a supplemental grant issued in 2021 for COVID-19 and flu vaccine awareness. In the second five-year REACH grant awarded in 2023, the work expanded again to include breastfeeding and adult immunizations and continues emphasizing the importance of policy, systems, and environmental change toward health equity.

Healthy Savannah is one of only three organizations across the state of Georgia to be awarded the CHC’s HPV Vaccination Equity Initiative grant. Established in 2007 by (then) Mayor Dr. Otis Johnson, the local non-profit is now adapting the methodologies it developed under the REACH grants – promoting access, awareness, and acceptance of adult vaccines – to encompass prevention interventions for certain cancers, especially in Black and Hispanic populations that may have a mistrust of vaccines and the healthcare system.

Healthy Savannah hired Patricia Merritt on April 1 to coordinate its new HPV Vaccination Equity Initiative program. She has worked in the community for the past 30 years with children and families with the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice. Merritt served as Court Administrator with the Chatham County Juvenile Court until November 2022. She also worked as director of Behavioral Health for the Chatham County Safety Net Planning Council. Merritt earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of South Carolina and a Master of Science from Nova Southeastern University. She is currently working on a Ph.D. in public safety, criminal justice, at Capella University.

“I was aware of the HPV vaccine before, but I didn’t focus on its ability to prevent or greatly reduce certain cancers,” said Merritt. “Now that I am learning about its many benefits, I’m excited to be one of the messengers to share this message of hope with Black and Hispanic Savannahians. Our goal, which has proven to be achievable, is to decrease Cervical cancer deaths to nearly zero.”

In 2007, Australia was one of the first countries to introduce a national HPV vaccination program, and it has since achieved high vaccination coverage across both sexes. Cervical cancer mortality is estimated to decrease to less than an age-standardized annual rate of one death per 100,000 women by 2034.

“Healthy Savannah is further expanding its award-winning Community Health Advocate (CHA) program, established during the first REACH grant in 2021, to include the benefits of HPV vaccination,” said Elsie Smalls, Adult Immunization Operations manager. “We have since trained more than 80 Community Health Advocates who share masks, hand sanitizer, and science-based information with people in their neighborhoods, jobs, schools, and at sporting events.”

The CHAs are also currently promoting the CDC’s Bridge Access Program, which offers no-cost COVID-19 vaccines across Chatham County at the Coastal Health District’s Eisenhower Clinic, J. C. Lewis Primary Health Care and several CVS and Walgreens branches through the end of this year. The Bridge Access Program is available to uninsured or underinsured individuals through December 31, 2024.

Under the new HPV Vaccination Equity Initiative grant, the CHAs will help connect community members, as well as the uninsured and underinsured to free or low-cost programs offering HPV vaccines, which help protect individuals ages 9 to 45 against certain cancers including cervical, vaginal, vulvar, anal and oral.

Healthy Savannah recently invited current, former and prospective CHAs to a listening session on April 18 to introduce the new HPV Vaccination Equity Initiative program, and plans to hold an initial training session on May 2.

“Our CHA methodology aligns with Healthy Savannah’s vision of utilizing an ‘upstream’ approach to foster sustainable health equity among racial and ethnic minority populations in low-wealth neighborhoods,” said Paula Kreissler, executive director. “We have developed successful methods to employ this approach in areas of nutrition, physical activity and the reduction of chronic diseases.”

Smalls says those chosen to become Community Health Advocates after the training will receive a $600 incentive for performing community outreach activities to share information about the benefits of the HPV vaccine and increase access and awareness.

For more information about the CHA program and to attend a future listening session, visit


In February 2024, the CHC: Creating Healthier Communities, awarded a one-year $150,000 grant to Healthy Savannah to promote vaccine equity to prevent cancer and support new and expanded community-driven solutions to address social and other factors that negatively impact access to cancer prevention interventions for disproportionately affected populations in the Savannah area. Specifically, the grant will support Healthy Savannah’s initiatives in developing, implementing, and bringing resources and policy attention to solutions that break down barriers of mistrust in the healthcare system, skepticism of vaccine effectiveness and lack of awareness about vaccine access and the availability of prevention interventions for certain cancers. Healthy Savannah is one of only three organizations across the state of Georgia to be awarded this grant and is adapting its award-winning Community Health Advocate (CHA) program and working with more than 200 community partners and organizations to foster sustainable health equity in this space. Healthy Savannah developed the CHA program during the first of two five-year CDC Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health (REACH) grants it currently administers with the YMCA of Coastal Georgia. The methodology uses an “upstream” approach to foster sustainable health equity among racial and ethnic minority populations in low-wealth neighborhoods in areas of nutrition, physical activity and the reduction of chronic diseases. In July 2022, Healthy Savannah received the CDC’s 2022 REACH Lark Galloway-Gilliam Award for Advancing Health Equity Challenge. The award recognizes extraordinary individuals and entities whose work has contributed to advancing health equity.

Marjorie Young
Carriage Trade Public Relations® Inc.

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