Several cancers associated with human papillomavirus (HPV) infection are on the rise in the U.S., but the country's HPV vaccination rates remain dismally low, according to the just-published Annual Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer.
This year's report, which focuses on cancer data from 1975 to 2009, includes lots of good news, such as ongoing declines in the nation's overall cancer death rate and in the incidence of many kinds of cancer. But the HPV-associated cancers, highlighted in a special section of the report, present a less rosy picture.
When the first HPV vaccine was introduced in 2006, physicians welcomed the opportunity to protect patients against cancers linked to HPV, the most common sexually transmitted infection. But doctors have faced an uphill battle convincing parents to give their kids the vaccine, which is now recommended for all 11- and 12-year-old boys and girls.
"Some parents are under the mistaken impression that 'if I give my kids the vaccine, I'm giving them license to have sex,'" said Packard Children's adolescent medicine specialist Sophia Yen, MD, when I asked for her opinion of the reason for low U.S. vaccination rates.
As the new report describes, by 2010, only 32 percent of U.S. girls aged 13 to 17 had received the entire three-dose series of injections. (The vaccine has been recommended for boys only since 2011, so vaccination rates among boys are even lower.) In contrast, more than half of Canadian girls in the same age group have completed the vaccination series, as have more than 70 percent of teen girls in Australia and the U.K.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., the incidence of HPV-associated cancers of the mouth, throat, anus and vulva increased between 2000 and 2009, the new report says. Cervical cancer, which is also associated with HPV, declined over the same period, but still accounts for more than half of HPV-associated cancers in women.
When she's talking with parents about the HPV vaccine, Yen has some favorite talking points:
- The HPV vaccine is a safe and effective way to protect against many HPV-associated cancers and genital warts.
- HPV vaccination elicits a stronger immune response in younger kids, so it's best to give children the series of shots at the recommended age of 11 or 12 instead of waiting for them to make their own decision about receiving the vaccine at age 18, as some parents say they want to do.
- If you're uncomfortable discussing it with your pre-teen, you don't have to tell your child the vaccination has anything to do with sex.
In the U.S., other vaccines recommended for the same age group are much more widely used, Yen pointed out: 78 percent of kids receive the Tdap vaccine, and 71 percent are vaccinated against meningitis. Parents need to get the message that the HPV vaccine is just as important, she said.
"Educating a mother that this vaccine will save your daughter from cervical cancer really wakes people up," Yen said.
Previously: Facebook application aims to raise awareness, prevent cervical cancer, Experts weigh in on recommendation that boys be given HPV vaccine and Only one-third of teenage girls get HPV vaccine to prevent cervical cancer
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