Report Says HPV Vaccination Should Be a Top Priority

A report today from the President’s Cancer Panel calls achieving widespread human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination one of the most important opportunities for cancer prevention. The Panel’s report, Accelerating HPV Vaccine Uptake: Urgency for Action to Prevent Cancer, issues an urgent call for energizing efforts to reach the HPV vaccines’ potential to save lives and prevent cancers and HPV-related conditions in men and women.

Nearly all sexually-active men and women get HPV at some point in their lives. This is true even for people who only have sex with one person in their lifetime. HPV is linked to multiple cancers and other diseases. The report examines underuse of HPV vaccines, identifies key barriers to increasing vaccine uptake, and provides actionable recommendations for overcoming these obstacles.

Debbie Saslow, PhD, leads the American Cancer Society’s efforts in HPV and cervical cancer, including the Society’s screening and vaccination guidelines, so we asked her about the report, and why this potentially lifesaving vaccination has not taken off.

Debbie Saslow, PhD

Debbie Saslow, PhD

“This is a comprehensive report that makes the case for an urgent call to action. We now have two safe and effective vaccines, but they are not reaching their potential to prevent cancer in the United States and around the world.

“Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC ) Director Dr. Tom Frieden recently named slow uptake of HPV vaccination as one of the top five health threats for 2014. Experts now know improving HPV vaccination rates for girls and boys will lead to decreases not only of cervical cancer but also other genital cancers, anal cancer, and probably some oral cancers, as well as other health conditions in both males and females.  Increased vaccination can also reduce racial and socioeconomic disparities in cervical cancer.

“HPV vaccines have been recommended for girls in the United States for several years. The American Cancer Society has recommended their use since 2007. They protect against human papillomavirus (HPV), the virus that causes most cases of cervical cancer, and one of the vaccines also protects against nearly all cases of genital warts.

“But uptake of HPV vaccination has been slow in this country; only about one in three girls has received all three doses of the vaccine, as recommended.

“So why aren’t parents vaccinating their daughters? A recent survey showed the five most common reasons are that parents:

  • Did not think the vaccine was needed or necessary;
  • said their child was not sexually active;
  • had concerns about vaccine safety or side effects;
  • lacked knowledge about the vaccine or HPV and/or;
  • did not receive a recommendation from the child’s health care provider

“One recent study found that more than four out of five girls who have not received that vaccine had a health care visit where they received a vaccine against a different illness. These are major missed opportunities. If those girls had also received HPV vaccine, vaccination rates could have exceeded 92%.

“This report represents an opportunity to do better. We need to educate parents about the vaccine, why it’s needed, the importance of vaccinating before the onset of sexual activity, and its excellent safety record. We also need to educate health care providers, to reiterate these messages and help increase the number of girls being vaccinated.

“Even with low vaccination rates, HPV infections targeted by the vaccines have dropped by more than half in the United States since the introduction of the vaccine. That’s a remarkable and lifesaving improvement, but we can and must do more. It is not often that we have an opportunity to prevent cancer, or in this case multiple cancers, with a single tool. Concerted efforts are needed so this opportunity is not lost.”

About David Sampson

I am the director of medical and scientific communications for the American Cancer Society national home office.
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