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HPV vaccination rates fall short of goal

Photo courtesy of Professor Noel Brewer.

Adolescents around the country are not as protected against Human Papillomavirus as previously hoped, according to a new report published by the President’s Cancer Panel. 

Two UNC professors led and assisted with the preparation of this report. Barbara Rimer, dean of the Gillings School of Global Public Health, is the President's Cancer Panel chairperson, and Noel Brewer, a health behavior professor, served as her special adviser.

The President’s Cancer Panel, a team that advises the President of the United States on the National Cancer Program, found that less than half of all U.S. adolescents were fully vaccinated against HPV in 2017, which is short of its goal of 80 percent vaccination by 2020. This new report urges the White House to renew its commitment to prioritize HPV vaccinations.

Human Papillomavirus is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States, affecting almost a quarter of Americans. It can be transmitted through intimate skin-to-skin exposure. In most cases, HPV goes away on its own. But in cases where it doesn't, it can lead to genital warts and, in some cases, cancer.

Brewer said HPV causes six types of cancer, nearly 34,000 cases of HPV cancers occur each year in the United States.

“In the U.S., there is one HPV vaccine available,” Brewer said. “It’s the best-designed HPV vaccine, and it protects against nine different types of HPV. The HPV vaccine is completely safe, and it is one of the most studied medicines available today.”

Low vaccination rates can have significant consequences, and some of them are deadly.

“The CDC estimates that low vaccination rates will lead to 53,000 cases of cervical cancer that could be avoided,” Brewer said. “The goal is that 80 percent of adolescents will get the full vaccination because once we get to that level, we will reach herd immunity.”

Brewer pointed to some success stories. In Australia, high vaccination rates may lead to a virtual elimination of genital warts and may eventually bring about the end of HPV-related cervical cancer cases.  

Yet despite its widespread availability and proven safety, vaccinations aren’t as high as the panel would like, for a number of reasons.

“Parents want (their children) to get the vaccine, but they have questions and concerns, and providers misunderstand them,” Brewer said. 

He said because providers believe these questions and concerns indicate reluctance on the part of the parents, medical providers might use weak language and put off suggesting the vaccination until late in the appointment or skip asking about the HPV vaccine altogether. 

“Providers can have a big impact by suggesting the vaccine strongly,” Brewer said.

Though the report focuses on vaccinating those under 18 years old, Brewer mentioned that unvaccinated young adults can and should get the HPV vaccine. 

“Get the vaccine," Brewer said. "Women can get the vaccination until 26. Men until 21, or age 26 if they’re gay or bisexual.”

Amy Sauls, director of Pharmacy for Campus Health, expressed a similar sentiment. 

“Getting the vaccine is certainly the best way to protect yourself from HPV,” she said. “Our students can schedule an appointment with our immunization clinic online, or they can call us.”

Campus Health Services offers HPV testing in addition to the vaccination.

“Most cancer-causing HPV infections are 100 percent avoidable,” Brewer said. “Getting the vaccination can help prevent the infections, and save thousands of lives.”

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