Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted virus in the United States—so common that nearly every sexually active person will acquire it at some point in his or her life. When not cleared by one’s immune system, certain strains of the virus are linked to serious health issues including genital warts and numerous types of cancer.
The dangers of HPV are well known, and preventative treatments have been available for nearly a decade, and yet, coverage remains low. In 2006, the first vaccine was licensed to prevent HPV-related diseases. The vaccine, Gardasil, is given in a three-part series over the course of six months. Initially, only approved for use by girls, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now recommends that both females and males between the ages of 9 and 26 receive the vaccine as the incidence of HPV-associated cancers affecting men continues to grow.
Since the introduction of the HPV vaccine, numerous studies have highlighted its positive health contributions. In a 2013 study, the CDC found that the proportion of girls infected by the four strains of HPV covered by the vaccine decreased 88% among those who had been vaccinated. More recently, a study of 26,000 teen girls found that those who received all three doses of the vaccine were 44% less likely to be infected with cervical dysplasia and 43% less likely to be infected with genital warts. In addition to preventing infection, another recent study concluded that the vaccine could save significant amount of money by avoiding future cancer care.
While the HPV vaccine has proven effective, adoption among men and women remains low. According to the CDC, only 40% of women and a paltry 6% of males between ages 19 to 26 reported at least one dose of the HPV vaccine in 2013. In addition, a significant percentage of individuals fail to complete the recommended three doses. A study completed by the CDC found only 38% of girls between the ages of 13 and 17 completed the series; for boys in the same age group, only 14% completed all three doses.
In March of 2015, Gardasil 9 was officially launched offering an enhanced version of the vaccine to protect against nine strains of HPV. With this increased protection, there is a belief that a greater percentage of adolescents will get immunized.
However, with 33,200 cases of cancer each year tied to HPV, it is important that coverage and completion of all three doses of the vaccination improve. Healthcare professionals should make a concerted effort to communicate the benefits of the vaccination to both teens and their parents. By discussing the potential risks of going unvaccinated, we can increase coverage and ensure more individuals do not suffer from this all too common and preventable disease.