Leading US cancer centers urge HPV vaccination for the prevention of cancer

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The University of Chicago Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center has joined with the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and dozens of other NCI-designated cancer centers across the U.S. to call attention to low rates of human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccination. This is a serious public health threat—and a missed opportunity. HPV vaccination is an effective, but tragically underused method for preventing many cases of cancer. As national leaders in cancer research and clinical care, we urge parents and health care providers to protect the health of our children.

What is human papilloma virus?

About 79 million Americans are currently infected with HPV, making it the most common sexually transmitted infection in the country. About 14 million people become newly infected each year. And most sexually-active men and women will get at least one type of HPV at some point in their lives. The virus usually goes away on its own, but when HPV does not go away, it can cause health problems, including cervical and other cancers. The virus can also cause cancer in the back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils. Each year, 27,000 men and women in the U.S. are diagnosed with an HPV-related cancer. This amounts to a new case every 20 minutes.

The vaccine has been available for years. Why is this effort starting now?

In November, experts from the NCI, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the American Cancer Society and more than half of the NCI-designated cancer centers met in a summit to share findings from 18 detailed regional assessments. The group identified barriers to increasing immunization rates in pediatric settings across the country and decided to send a powerful message to parents, adolescents and health care providers about the importance of HPV vaccination for cancer prevention.

How can I avoid HPV and the health problems it can cause?

Get vaccinated. Or get your children vaccinated. HPV vaccines are safe and effective. They protect against cancers caused by HPV when given in the recommended age groups. HPV vaccines are given in three shots over six months. It is important to get all three doses.

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Who should get the vaccine?

The HPV vaccine is more effective the earlier it is given. The CDC advises all boys and girls ages 11 or 12 years to get vaccinated. Catch-up vaccines are recommended for males through age 21 and for females through age 26, if they did not get vaccinated when they were younger. The vaccine is also recommended for gay and bisexual men, as well as men and women with compromised immune systems.

How common is HPV vaccination?

According to a 2015 CDC report, only 40 percent of girls and 21 percent of boys in the U.S. are receiving the recommended three doses of the HPV vaccine. This falls far short of the goal of 80 percent by the end of this decade, which was set by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s Healthy People 2020 mission. U.S. rates are significantly lower than those of countries such as Australia (75 percent), and the United Kingdom (84-92 percent). With a 93 percent vaccination rate, Rwanda has shown that high vaccination rates are currently achievable.

Is the vaccine safe?

The HPV vaccines, like all vaccines used in the U.S., passed extensive safety testing before and after being approved by the nation’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The vaccines have a safety profile similar to that of other vaccines approved for adolescents in the U.S. Internationally, the safety of HPV vaccines has been tested and approved by the World Health Organization’s Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety.

What are the NCI and the CDC asking health care providers to do?

Three things:                       

  • Encourage all parents and guardians to have their sons and daughters complete the 3-dose HPV vaccine series before the 13th birthday, and complete the series as soon as possible in children aged 13 to 17. Parents and guardians should talk to their health care provider to learn more about HPV vaccines and their benefits.
  • Encourage men up to age 21 and women up to age 26, who were not vaccinated as preteens or teens, to complete the 3-dose HPV vaccine series to protect themselves against HPV.
  • Be advocates for cancer prevention by making strong recommendations for childhood HPV vaccination and to educate parents/guardians and colleagues about the importance and benefits of HPV vaccination.
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Photo: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

How much do the HPV vaccines cost?

The drug company price is around $130 or $140 per dose. This cost does not include the cost of giving the shots or the doctor’s charge. So, it’s possible that the cost for the series (3 shots over 6 months) could be $500 or more.

Is this covered by health insurance plans?

Insurance plans will probably cover the cost of the vaccine, according to the American Cancer Society, if it is given according to national guidelines. But check with your insurance plan to be sure. The vaccines are included in the federal Vaccines for Children (VFC) program, which covers vaccine costs for children and teens who don’t have insurance and for some children and teens who are underinsured. To find the VFC contact where you live, visit http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/programs/vfc/contacts-state.html, or call 1-800-232-4636 (1-800-CDC-INFO).

 What else should parents and teens know?

HPV vaccination, according to the NCI, is our best defense against the virus and its related cancers. More information is available from the NCI or the CDC.

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