If this vaccine fights cancer, why aren’t more people embracing it?

If you knew there was a vaccine that could prevent several types of cancer—including a form of cancer that kills over 250,000 women each year—would you make sure your child gets it?

Consider this:

  • An estimated 79 million Americans are infected with Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) that causes a range of cancers, as well as genital warts.
  • HPV is so common that most females and males will become infected with at least one typadolescent vaccinatione of HPV in their lifetime.

But there is some incredibly good news: the HPV vaccine prevents infections from HPV, and an updated HPV vaccine protects against more than twice the number of strains of HPV than the previous version.

Yes, this vaccine prevents cancer.

Low vaccination rates in Washington

But low HPV vaccination rates are leaving both boys and girls at risk. Fewer than half of adolescent girls and only 13% of adolescent boys in Washington state have completed the three-dose HPV vaccine series.

“Some parents aren’t aware that HPV vaccine is recommended for adolescents,” said Libby Page, manager of Immunization Assessment and Promotion. “And some health care providers are reluctant to give a strong recommendation for HPV vaccine, presenting it as optional. There’s a perception that parents don’t think HPV vaccine is as important as other types of vaccine, so providers focus on the other adolescent vaccines. But in surveys, parents consider HPV vaccine just as important as the other recommended adolescent vaccines.”

Make it less awkward, make it routine

Adolescence is the optimal time to get the vaccine because preteens have a better immune response. In addition, HPV vaccine is best given before exposure, which means starting the series at least six to twelve months before becoming sexually active, and that makes it an uncomfortable topic for some parents—and even some providers. Parents may feel that their child is too young for sexual activity, so they don’t see the need for the vaccine when a child is eleven or twelve, the recommended age for the immunization.

“But how many young people will let their parents know six months prior to when they plan to be sexually active?” asked Page. “For most parents, it’s probably easier and certainly less awkward to have the vaccine included among other adolescent vaccines as part of your child’s routine medical visit.”

How do we raise HPV vaccine levels?

Page believes that HPV vaccination should become a routine part of all adolescent visits, eliminating missed opportunities. Increasing access to HPV vaccinations will also make it easier for young people to get the three doses they need. One convenient place in Seattle is through a school-based health center.


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I am a risk communications specialist at Public Health - Seattle & King County.