COMMENTARY: Hidalgo Co. HPV vaccine rates improving
Originally published in the The Monitor
When the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine was released in 2006, it was a major breakthrough in the fight against cancer. HPV causes an estimated 5 percent of all cancers worldwide, and affects more than 38,000 people every year in the United States. The vaccine can help protect our young men and women from six different types of cancer. Even still, HPV vaccination rates in recent years have been slow to pick up.
This is why it was a relief to see that coverage rates here in Texas rose a solid 6 to 7 percentage points among teens from 2014 to 2015, according to a recently released National Immunization Survey, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) annual assessment of immunization rates.
The percentage of Texas boys vaccinated with all three doses of the HPV vaccine rose from about 18 percent to 24 percent, the figures show, while the rate for girls rose from 34 percent to 41 percent. While these increases were certainly an improvement, however, both rates fell short of national averages and are far below the U.S. Government’s Healthy People 2020 Objective of 80 percent.
The increase among boys is particularly promising, as research has shown more and more men are falling victim to cancers caused by HPV. According to the CDC, more than 15,000 males are affected by HPV-associated cancers every year in the United States. Cases of head and neck cancers in men caused by HPV are increasing at such an alarming rate that by 2020 these cancers are expected to pass the annual number of cervical cancers (nearly all of which are caused by HPV).
The CDC recommends the HPV vaccine for all adolescents at age 11 to 12. Those who miss that window can still be vaccinated up to age 26. Vaccinating during early adolescence is critical for a few reasons. First, the vaccine is only effective prior to being exposed to HPV, so we want to be sure that adolescents are vaccinated with all three doses long before they begin sexual activity. Parents should not wait until children are already sexually active before beginning the vaccine series because by then they might have already been exposed. When do you put on a bike helmet? Before you get on the bike or after you’re already riding? The vaccine can help prevent cancer-causing HPV but only when given prior to exposure.
Another reason the vaccine is given at age 11 to 12 is because the vaccine produces a stronger immune response then, compared to kids who receive the vaccine when they’re older. That’s not to say the vaccine isn’t effective when given at older ages. It simply works better earlier in adolescence.
The rise in vaccination rates, while promising, is still well below where we should be. Fewer than half of Texas teens have received all three doses. Even in Hidalgo County where boys rates are higher relative to the rest of the state, only one in three boys are fully vaccinated against HPV.
So what can we do? We can make sure that our own family members are up to date on all CDC-recommended vaccines, including HPV. We can continue to tell our friends and family members about the importance of this cancer-preventing vaccine and encourage them to talk with their healthcare providers about getting vaccinated. And if we encounter those who have questions or concerns about the vaccine or its safety, we can guide them to science-based resources like cdc.gov/hpv or the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Vaccine Education Center.
We still have a lot to do to protect our young people from these cancers, but we’re on the right track. Now let’s keep it going.