PUBLIC DOMAIN The HPV vaccine has been shown to prevent multiple types of cancer.
There’s a vaccine that could eradicate cervical cancer, but it’s heavily underused in the U.S. Thankfully new numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that a rising number of U.S. teenagers are receiving one or more shots of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, totaling up to 60 percent in 2016. Experts say the target rate is 80 percent.
HPV is transmitted through sexual contact, and the most dangerous strains are responsible for nearly all cases of cervical cancer and 95 percent of anal cancers, according to the National Cancer Institute. HPV is also strongly linked to oral, vaginal, vulvar and penile cancers.
The risk of infection is high — CDC estimates show that 90 percent of men and 80 percent of women who are sexually active will eventually get HPV.
William Schaffer, professor of preventative medicine at Vanderbilt University spoke in a press release about the high hopes he had for the vaccine.
“I thought the advent of our first explicitly anti-cancer vaccine and the fact that it was so incredibly successful and safe, would be immediately embraced with pizzazz and rose petals,” Schaffner said.
Unfortunately, this was not the case. HPV’s association with sex has created parental resistance to having their children vaccinated. The mentality is that teenagers shouldn’t be sexually active in the first place and thus they don’t need the vaccination.
Additionally, there are those who fear that all vaccines are dangerous, even though this one has been proven to be safe. Merck, the company that produced the first HPV vaccine Gardasil, had previously sold an arthritis drug that caused heart attacks. HPV vaccines have been plagued with sensational news stories linking them to deaths, even though no death has been proven.
Rural-urban and gender disparities also exist. According to the MIT Technology Review, vaccination rates are very low in the South, the Midwest and in the Appalachian states.
This may be because some health care services are less accessible outside major cities and because households in rural areas may be more socially conservative.
Rates of vaccination are much lower for boys than for girls, likely due to a widespread misconception that HPV causes only cervical cancer. Men, in fact, are vulnerable to oral and anal cancers from HPV.
Another impediment is that the CDC guidelines for the vaccine required three shots six months apart. Only 43 percent of vaccination recipients return after the first shot. New 2016 guidelines recommending two doses for those under 15 could improve completion rates.
The challenges in encouraging widespread HPV vaccination are many and varied. The way this particular problem is solved will likely contain lessons for vaccines developed in the future.
For instance a vaccine for HIV will likely encounter similar social stigmas. The costs of vaccination will also remain a barrier for low-income households and communities. Vaccines are more effective when more individuals are vaccinated so it is important for all to get their necessary shots.