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Why Teens Need the HPV Vaccine Now

July 20, 2015

Human papillomavirus causes at least 26,000 cases of cancer every year in the United States: about 18,000 in women and 8,000 in men. In 2006 a vaccine was licensed to prevent most of these cancers as well as venereal warts. First recommended for girls, the victims of more HPV-related cancers, the HPV vaccine was soon recommended for boys as well. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends HPV immunization for all preteens between the ages of 11 and 12 years, prior to any risk of exposure.

About 80% of us will contract HPV in our lives. Fortunately, most HPV infection is cleared by the immune system without long-term consequences. The unfortunate few go on to develop devastating disease. Sadly, the immunization rate of U.S. teens against HPV is very low. By 2013 less than half of all teens had received even one dose of an HPV vaccine. Currently only 24% of preteens aged 11 to 12 years of age have begun the series.

HPV is difficult for parents to think about because most HPV is transmitted by some form of sexual contact. However, as much as we don’t want to think about our youngsters becoming sexual beings, they will. It is actually our goal as parents to have our children grow up and have families. Thus, acknowledging that our children may at some time in their lives contract HPV is our responsibility.

One major reason for low rates of HPV immunization is that people often receive misinformation about the vaccine. Getting a vaccine is less risky than driving across town in a car or playing a sport. Vaccines are safe, effective, and easy. While they can result in some side effects, severe reactions occur in fewer than one in a million doses. The most common side effect of the HPV vaccine is an achy arm. Severe side effects have not been reported. The health consequences associated with not immunizing far outweigh the risks vaccination.

In 2013 my colleagues and I, pediatricians at Physician Associates–Orlando Health, looked at our HPV immunization rates and were displeased with our performance. Our rates were similar to the State of Florida average rates (among the lowest in the nation); we were leaving hundreds of patients vulnerable to preventable cancer later in life. We set about to fix that. We reeducated ourselves and our staff about HPV disease and the importance of immunization according to CDC guidelines. We resolved to listen to patients and parents, answer questions, and offer valid information so that families understand the value of this vaccine in protecting children from cancer.

HPV vaccines are given as a series of three shots over a six-month period. We developed scheduling systems to make it easier for families to ensure that their children complete the series. Our doctors and nurses now assess patients’ immunization status at every office visit and administer any needed vaccines. We stress that the vaccine offers the best protection to girls and boys who receive all three doses before age 13, as per all expert recommendations.

As of 2015 our “series starts” (patients between 11 and 12 years old who have had at least one dose of HPV vaccine) have increased from a dismal 20% to over 50%, with some practices exceeding a 70% immunization rate. National immunization rates for this same age group remain at about 24%.

The success of our immunization project at Physician Associates – Orlando Health shows the power of awareness and education. As pediatricians and parents, we share the common goal of delivering our community’s children into adulthood as healthy as possible. If your teen or preteen has not yet started the HPV immunization series please make it a priority.

As the CDC says, “You’re not opening the door to sex. You’re closing the door to cancer.”