Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) at the University of Utah (U of U) has partnered with each of the National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated cancer centers to issue a joint statement urging the nation’s health care systems, physicians, providers, parents, and young adults to get human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination back on track.
Dramatic drops in annual well visits and immunizations during the COVID-19 pandemic have caused a significant vaccination lag in vital preventive services among U.S. children and adolescents—especially for the cancer-preventing HPV vaccine.
"Utah and the entire U.S. is facing a significant vaccination gap, especially for adolescents, due to the pandemic," said Deanna Kepka, PhD, cancer researcher at HCI and director of the Intermountain West HPV Vaccination Coalition. "Well-child visits are down. Usual ‘back to school’ vaccination activity for adolescents has been limited by virtual and hybrid learning. It is crucial that we get back on track as a state and nation with adolescent vaccination to ensure we protect our children and communities."
Nearly 80 million Americans – 1 out of every 4 people – are infected with HPV, a virus that causes several types of cancers. Of those millions, more than 36,000 will be diagnosed with an HPV-related cancer this year. Despite those staggering figures and the availability of a vaccine to prevent HPV infections, HPV vaccination rates remain significantly lower than other recommended adolescent vaccines in the United States. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, HPV vaccination rates lagged far behind other vaccines and other countries’ HPV vaccination rates.
According to 2019 data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), slightly more than half (54%) of adolescents nationwide were up to date on the HPV vaccine. The number is lower in Utah, with only 45% of adolescents up to date on the HPV vaccine, with disparities noted across urban and rural areas. Those numbers have declined dangerously since the pandemic:
- Early in the pandemic, HPV vaccination rates among adolescents fell by 75%, resulting in a large cohort of unvaccinated children.
- Since March 2020, an estimated one million doses of HPV vaccine have been missed by adolescents with public insurance— a decline of 21% over pre-pandemic levels.
- Adolescents with private insurance may be missing hundreds of thousands of doses of HPV vaccine.
The United States has recommended routine HPV vaccination for females since 2006, and for males since 2011. Current recommendations include a two-dose vaccine schedule for all adolescents at age 11 or 12, or starting at age 9. Catch-up HPV vaccination is recommended through age 26.
HCI strongly encourages parents to vaccinate their adolescents as soon as possible. The CDC recently authorized COVID-19 vaccination for 12-15-year-old children. This provides an opportunity for those children to get missed doses of routinely recommended vaccines, including HPV, at the same time, providing the COVID-19 vaccine is administered through their pediatrician. NCI Cancer Centers strongly urge action by health care systems and health care providers to identify and contact adolescents due for vaccinations and to use every opportunity to encourage and complete vaccination.
"HPV vaccination is cancer prevention. Our message to all parents, caregivers, and providers is that now is the time to catch up on missed doses of HPV vaccine to prevent future cancers," said Kepka. "Completing the multi-dose vaccine requirements needed for both HPV and COVID-19 will ensure that the highest levels of protection are achieved."
More information on HPV is available from HCI, the CDC, and the National HPV Vaccination Roundtable. This is the third time that all NCI-designated cancer centers have come together to issue a national HPV vaccination call to action. All 71 cancer centers unanimously share the goal of sending a powerful message to parents, adolescents and health care providers about the importance of HPV vaccination to eliminate HPV-related cancers.