Urgent Action Needed to Increase Human Papilloma Virus Vaccine Rates: A report from the President's Cancer Panel

Judy Keen
Feb 17, 2014

Vaccines to prevent infection by members of the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) family have been available and recommended  for adolescent (ages 13-17) girls since 2007, and since 2011 for adolescent boys. These vaccines are designed to prevent common HPV infection in men and women before exposure to the virus occurs. Since infection is spread through sexual activity, getting the vaccine to adolescents before they are sexually active is key. Because HPV infection can result in many types of cancers, the vaccines may be considered cancer prevention agents.

Why is HPV vaccination important? One in every 4 people in the US are infected with some form of HPV. While most people are able to effectively clear this infection from their body with no health consequences, others are not.  Infections that don't clear can result in cervical, anal, penile, and oropharyngeal (mouth and throat) cancers. Studies have shown that preventing infection can reduce the more than 22,000 cases of cervical cancer that are diagnosed in the US each year.

Last week, the President’s Cancer Panel, a panel of three Presidentially appointed scientists, physicians, and cancer advocates, released their Annual Report (Accelerating HPV Vaccine Uptake: urgency for action to prevent cancer), which urged increased action to improve HPV vaccination rates in the US, and for the US to act as a global partner in reducing the incidence of HPV-associated cancers worldwide. As the report highlights, vaccine acceptance in the US has been disappointing. Missed opportunities to promote or administer the vaccine, lack of public trust in the vaccine, misinformation about the need and efficacy of the vaccine, and insufficient availability of vaccine services were all listed as reasons for low vaccination rates. These are areas that must be addressed to improve vaccination rates and protect people from HPV related cancers.

The goal, as established by the Healthy People 2020 recommendations, is to achieve greater than 80% vaccination of the US population by 2020; the US is far from achieving that number. As of 2012, only 33.4% of adolescent girls have received all three vaccine doses (which is essential for full protection from the viruses), and even fewer boys have been vaccinated at all. Some states have done better, two states (Rhode Island and Delaware) are above 40%, while 11 states are lagging far behind with less than 30% of their adolescents vaccinated. Globally, both Australia and the United Kingdom are outpacing our efforts: they have achieved 71% and 60% uptake in their young populations.

There are known barriers to vaccination, and viable strategies for improvement; these are offered by the President’s Cancer Panel Annual Report. If the US public continues to avoid HPV vaccination and/or refuse to acknowledge its importance, then the future will only bring more suffering from cancers that could have been avoided.

This image is a work of the National Institutes of Health, part of the United States Department of Health and Human Services. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.

Judy Keen

Judy is a S&T Alumni Fellow (HEHS, 2012-2014). She blogs about the latest cancer research, increasing the access to the scientific literature, and graduate education. Follow Judy on twitter @judykeenphd or at judykeenphd.com

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