Rates of vaccination against human papillomavirus (HPV) are low among teenagers in the United States while some cancers caused by HPV are on the rise, according to several recent reports.
HPV is a virus passed from skin-to-skin sexual contact. The majority of sexually active people are infected with HPV at some point, but the body usually fights off the infection before it causes problems. However, when the body fails to fight off HPV, it can cause anal and mouth/throat cancer in both men and women, cervical cancer and cancers of the vagina and vulva in women, and cancers of the penis in men.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends HPV vaccination for both girls and boys between 11 and 12 years old. Girls and women between the ages of 13 and 26 and boys and men between the ages of 13 and 21 should get vaccinated if they did not when younger. Vaccination may be advisable for some men up to age 26.
There are 2 HPV vaccines available: Gardasil, which is licensed for boys and girls, and Cervarix, which is licensed for girls only. The vaccines are given in a 3-shot series over 6 months and help protect against the strains of HPV most likely to lead to severe illnesses.
According to the CDC, however, only a handful of the nation’s youth have been vaccinated against HPV. In 2011, just 35% of girls and 1% of boys had received the full 3-shot series. In addition, vaccination rates were lower for younger girls than they were for older teens, meaning that girls are not being vaccinated at the recommended ages of 11 and 12.
Sophia Yen, MD, an adolescent medicine specialist at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford University, believes that parents are unwilling to get their preteens vaccinated because they don’t want to send the wrong message.
“Some parents are under the mistaken impression that ‘if I give my kids the vaccine, I’m giving them license to have sex,’” Dr. Yen said in a post
on Stanford’s Scope blog.
Although parents may be uncomfortable discussing sex with their children, the HPV vaccine has a better immune response in preteens and is more effective when given before a person becomes sexually active.
Getting vaccinated against HPV is more important than ever. A recent report in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute
found that, while rates of many cancers declined between 2000 and 2009, the rates for a number of HPV-associated cancers increased during this period. The report also found that HPV vaccination rates were particularly low in southern states where cervical cancer rates are the highest.
The increasing rates of HPV-associated cancers and low rates of HPV vaccination in teens and preteens show a serious need for increased prevention efforts. Health care professionals should recommend HPV vaccinations for both boys and girls at 11 or 12 years old. To help increase vaccination rates, they should inform parents that the vaccine is safe, effective, and can help protect their children from developing a range of cancers.