Doctors and scientists across America at National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated cancer centers and other organizations recently issued a joint statement urging the nation’s health-care systems, physicians, parents, children, and young adults to get human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination back on track. Drops in annual well visits and immunizations during the COVID-19 pandemic have caused a significant vaccination gap and lag in vital preventive services among U.S. children and adolescents—especially for the HPV vaccine.
The pandemic also has exacerbated health disparities, leaving Black, Indigenous, and other people of color; rural; and sexual minority adolescents at even greater risk for missed doses of this cancer prevention vaccine.
Nearly 80 million Americans—1 out of every 4 people—are infected with HPV, a virus that causes six types of cancers. Of those millions, nearly 36,000 will be diagnosed with an HPV-related cancer this year. Despite those 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 routinely recommended vaccines and other countries’ HPV vaccination rates. According to 2019 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), just more than half (54%) of adolescents were up to date on the HPV vaccine.
Photo credit: Getty
This is the fourth time that all NCI-designated cancer centers have come together to issue a national call to action. All 71 cancer centers unanimously share the goal of sending a powerful message about the importance of HPV vaccination for the elimination of HPV-related cancers.
Changes Due to 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 1 million doses of HPV vaccine have been missed by adolescents with public insurance—a decline of 21% from prepandemic levels. Adolescents with private insurance may be missing hundreds of thousands of doses of HPV vaccine.
The U.S. has recommended routine HPV vaccination for females since 2006 and for males since 2011. Current recommendations are for routine vaccination at ages 11 or 12 or starting at age 9. Catch-up HPV vaccination is recommended through age 26. Adults aged 27 through 45 should talk with their health-care providers about HPV vaccination, because some people who have not been vaccinated might benefit. The HPV vaccine series is two doses for children who get the first dose at ages 9 through 14 and three doses for those who get the first dose at ages 15 and older and for immunocompromised people.
NCI cancer centers strongly encourage parents to vaccinate their adolescents as soon as possible. The CDC recently authorized COVID-19 vaccination for 12- to 15-year-old children, allowing for missed doses of routinely recommended vaccines, including HPV, to be administered at the same time. NCI cancer centers strongly urge action by health-care systems and providers to identify and contact adolescents due for vaccinations and to use every opportunity to encourage and complete vaccination.