Most Teens Still Can’t Get This Stunningly Effective Cancer-Prevention Medicine

New research shows a dramatic reduction in HPV infection among teen girls in the U.S.

(Photo: Ton Keone/Getty Images)

Feb 22, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

Cervical cancer kills more than 200,000 people worldwide annually, but new data proves it doesn’t have to. On Monday, researchers published a study that serves as a reminder of a potent preventive tool: the vaccine against the human papillomavirus. The presence of HPV in teen girls in the U.S. has dropped 64 percent in the 10 years since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first recommended the vaccine for all girls and women age 11 to 26, according to the findings published Monday by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

In spite of the striking success rate, the vast majority of teens in the U.S. still aren’t vaccinated, putting them at significantly increased risk for cervical, anal, and throat cancer later in life. Only 40 percent of girls and 22 percent of teen boys age 13 to 17 have received all three doses of the vaccine in the U.S., according to the CDC. Meanwhile, more than 70 percent of teen boys and girls in Australia and more than 60 percent of those in the United Kingdom have been vaccinated, according to the National Institutes of Health.

“We have a safe, effective vaccine that prevents cancer, but not enough children are protected with this vaccine, leaving them at risk,” Lauri E. Markowitz, the study’s lead researcher, told TakePart by email. “This study shows that HPV vaccination is reducing the prevalence of HPV infections in the U.S., which is an important message for parents to hear.”

The low vaccination rate in the U.S. is largely attributed to the failure of doctors and nurses to communicate the need to patients’ parents, according to Markowitz. It comes at an unnecessarily high cost. HPV causes more than 11,000 cases of cervical cancer annually in the U.S., leading to 4,000 deaths, in addition to 16,000 cases of non-cervical cancer, according to the CDC.

The HPV vaccine has faced opposition from religious conservatives and abstinence advocates, as well as a community of anti-vaccine activists. Conservative groups such as Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council have lobbied against state-level legislation that would have made the vaccination mandatory, arguing, in the face of all available evidence, that getting the vaccine will lead girls to be more sexually active.

“The seriousness of HPV and other STIs underscores the significance of God’s design for sexuality to human wellbeing,” reads a statement on HPV from Focus on the Family. “Thus, Focus on the Family affirms—above any available health intervention—abstinence until marriage and faithfulness after marriage as the best and primary practice in preventing HPV and other STIs.”

Markowitz and her colleagues recommend that clinicians advise parents to vaccinate their kids “the same way and the same day they recommend other routinely recommended adolescent vaccines.”

While use of the vaccine remains lower than experts would like in the U.S., its use in the broader developing world has greatly increased in the past decade. Pilot programs in low- to middle-income countries such as Argentina, Rwanda, Vietnam, and India have successfully implemented programs that administer the vaccine in schools. The programs are a vital preventive strategy in places where women may not be regularly screened for cervical cancer and where oncology and radiology treatment is inaccessible.