When COVID-19 vaccines started to appear, offering some hope of jump-starting normal life after about a year of quarantines and isolation, it brought much of the general public a sense of relief. But a vehement opposition instead reacted with dread to the mass vaccination campaign, and some of the mandates.
This was less than surprising to Abraham Aragones, who had been studying the tendencies for vaccine skepticism and outright opposition for more than a decade at the point SARS-CoV-2 first came into existence.
“It was no surprise at all,” said Aragones, M.D., M.S., associate member of the Hackensack Meridian Center for Discovery and Innovation (CDI). “We saw this with other vaccines. It can be so hard to contradict misinformation once it’s out there.”
Aragones, who arrived at the CDI in early 2023, brought his laboratory and work from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, where he focused on the public health study of cancer prevention in underserved groups. Of particular focus was the human papillomavirus (HPV) which causes cervical and a variety of other cancers in both males and females. Aragones’s work focuses on population-level dynamics of health policy and the value of social media and communication in directing - or misleading - it. As such, he will be working in the CDI’s Cancer Prevention Precision Control Institute (CPPCI) with researchers investigating similar themes.
To CDI leadership, it’s work which proves the old adage: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
“Abraham Aragones’s work is really exploring a critical niche,” said David Perlin, Ph.D., the chief scientific officer and executive vice president of the CDI. “HPV and its many health effects are very common - and proactively addressing the problem is going to be crucial in the decades to come. For some time, New Jersey has lagged behind other states in total HPV vaccination rates, and Abraham is here to help change the status quo.”
A Very Common Public Health Menace
“My work has always been in early detection and cancer prevention,” said Aragones recently in his office.
HPV is an incredibly common - and by some measures, incredibly overlooked - health threat. By some estimates, approximately 80 percent of all sexually-active people will get the virus at some point during their lifetime. Recently, while teaching a class at CCNY, Aragones stunned the class to silence when he said almost the entire group in attendance had it already or were going to get it.
In 2008 and 2009, just as Aragones was finishing his post-doctoral work and Master of Science degree at New York University, the first HPV vaccine was rolled out to the public, with a widespread campaign to boost vaccination rates. This effort became a study in sociology and anthropology - and not just biology, according to Aragones and other researchers. It became a milestone in anti-vaccination demonstrations, for a variety of factors - not least of which was the initial approval and push to have young girls inoculated, and the accompanying perception the vaccine would encourage sexual activity. The debate even entered into U.S. national politics, because the Texas Governor mandated the vaccine for all girls attending public school in the state - an order which was overturned by that state’s legislature. (The Texas governor, subsequently running for president, later renounced his mandate.)
The HPV vaccine debate was a kind of paradigm shift for vaccination, Aragones said recently. Its twists and turns showed that skepticism and outright opposition has flourished since memories of polio and other “eradicated” diseases have faded in the decades since mass vaccination campaigns had prevented their spread.
But Aragones also had an interest in how so common a health threat might disproportionately affect historically-underserved minority populations - particularly the Latino populations with which he was familiar because of the years earning his medical degree in Peru.
Thus, he found he could look at HPV from several different angles.
“My goal is always to understand a problem from as many different angles as possible: health providers, policymakers, patients,” he said. “It all comes into play, ultimately.”
From Peru to NYC
Aragones was originally a clinician after receiving his medical degree from the Universidad San Martin de Porres in Lima. But though he did clinical work for the early years in his career, he found that working with potential impacts beyond one-on-one encounters are what really spurred his interest in public health.
“I prefer to search for population-level solutions,” he said. “I like to work with people, and to help them. But pure research, and not strictly clinical work, is the best way for me to do so.”
Since Peru’s public health infrastructure is not as established as it is in other nations, he relocated to the United States, and particularly New York University. He earned his MS degree in clinical investigation in 2007, and shortly thereafter was working with Latino and other populations in and around New York City. One particularly noteworthy thrust of his work was establishing the complexity and diversity within the category of “Latino” itself. Other aspects of the work included understanding immigrant cultures and finding unexpected social dynamics, like discovering some newly arrived populations in the United States are actually more open to vaccination, perhaps due to experiences abroad where preventable diseases may be more prevalent.
Aragones came to the CDI in 2023, joining a former Memorial Sloan Kettering colleague at the CPPCI. The CPPCI is led by Lisa Carter-Bawa, Ph.D., MPH, APRN, ANP-C, FAAN, whose work in population health and prevention and control is complementary to Aragones’s own.
His ultimate goal: “to become a trusted source of information to the public” in matters of health, while reducing health disparities among the underserved, especially Latinos.
Shore to Shore
Aragones was raised as the youngest of four in Peru’s capital, Lima. His upbringing in the 1980s and 1990s was influenced greatly by that nation’s civil war. While a young teenager, there was a period of rampant random terror attacks on public places. It became a routine aspect of everyday life. Although the strife eventually settled again, it gave Aragones some perspective on isolation and sheltering in place - particularly in the recent COVID-19 era.
Once Peru went back to a sense of normalcy, he was able to take up a lifelong love: sailing the ocean. He has made four cross-Atlantic Ocean trips sailing races in groups. He now has a sailboat himself. Part of his future plans are fostering the love of sailing with his young family: a four-year-old daughter and his wife. Cross-oceanic races are probably confined to the past, but he envisions perhaps a trip to Bermuda some time in the future.
“I love the ocean, I always have,” he said. “But now it’s about cruising with my wife and my daughter more than anything else.”