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HPV vaccination rates in the US are still 'unacceptably low,' says CDC

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Doctors are failing to recommend an STD vaccine that protects against cancer

James Gathany / Wikimedia Commons

The number of teenagers who were vaccinated for HPV last year was still "unacceptably low," according to a report released today by the CDC. Despite a slight increase in vaccination rates over previous years, only 35 percent of adolescent boys and 57 percent of adolescent girls received one or more doses of the HPV vaccine by their 13th birthday in 2013. This, the agency says, can mainly be attributed to "knowledge gaps among parents" and a failure on the part of clinicians to recommend the vaccine.

The HPV vaccine consists of three doses of a drug that adolescents receive between the age of 11 and 13. It protects against human papillomavirus, a common STD that can lead to various forms of cancer, such as cervical cancer, anal cancer, penile cancer, and throat cancer. But despite its effectiveness — the HPV vaccine has been associated with a significant decline in infections that can cause cancer among teens — parents and clinicians have been slow to adopt it, even when they’re open to other forms of vaccines.

For instance, although 86 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds in the US receive a dose of the whooping cough vaccine, only about a third of adolescent girls receive all three doses of the HPV vaccine, according to the report. This is a big problem, the CDC says, because if the adolescent girls who are given other vaccines were also vaccinated against HPV before their thirteenth birthdays, 91 percent of them would have some protection from various forms of cancer.

"Today, I wish I had good news."

"Today, I wish I had good news, but what I need to report is a small increase... in HPV vaccination," said Anne Schuchat, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Disease, during a press conference. Schuchat explained that HPV vaccination coverage for girls only increased by 3.5 percentage points in the last year. "Our system is clearly missing many opportunities" to hand out the HPV vaccine, she said. Still, "it is a relief that we did not continue to have flatlining in HPV vaccines," she said, given that there was "absolutely no improvement between 2011 and 2012."

Part of the problem, the CDC says, is that despite a significant increase in clinician recommendations in the last year, doctors still fail to recommend the vaccine universally. According to parent reports, doctors recommended the vaccine to 64 percent of girls and 42 percent of boys in 2013, compared with 2012’s 61 percent and 28 percent, respectively.

Parental worry over the vaccine’s safety was also cited in the report as a reason to forgo vaccination. This, despite the fact that there have been no serious safety concerns linked to the vaccine in the last eight years — a period during which 67 million doses were distributed, the CDC says. Previous news reports have also pointed to parental dismay that doctors are recommending a drug to preteens and teens that has ties to sexual activity. This, some have said, might lead to increases in teen sex rates. That, too, has been disproved. Nevertheless, Schuchat said that the CDC doesn’t "think this is an issue of politics. We think parents are open to recommendations," but they simply don’t have the knowledge about the vaccines or aren’t getting the proper recommendations from their doctors.

"Doctors have some room for improvement in how they talk about the vaccine."

Given these findings, the CDC says that addressing gaps in clinician knowledge and communication skills is crucial. "Doctors have some room for improvement in how they talk about the vaccine," Schuchat said. Improving public acceptance of the vaccine is also important, the researchers write, which is why the CDC "continues to use research data to create an evidence-based communication campaign to reach the target audiences."

Still, progress has been slow, so the CDC plans to step up its collaborations with doctors, cancer organizations, and local immunization programs to ensure that they continue to promote the HPV vaccine. Schuchat also recommends that parents ask about vaccinations every time their children see a doctor, and that, from the moment they’re born. "The results were are reporting today are disappointing," Schuchat said. "Every twenty minutes, an American is diagnosed with an HPV-associated cancer... these results remind us that there is a lot more to do."