Improving Cancer Prevention in Youth Through Vaccines


Ten years ago, scientists introduced a vaccine to protect against cervical cancer—the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine. While numerous studies have demonstrated its efficacy, HPV vaccination rates remain lower than other vaccinations recommended for the same age group, teens and pre-teens. Providers have an opportunity to consider how they communicate and deliver HPV vaccines to increase inoculation rates for teens.

While new medications can bring a degree of uncertainty, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that since 2006, when the vaccine was first approved, cases of HPV have decreased dramatically. The decrease has been even greater than the CDC’s original predictions. Rates of the four strains of HPV covered by the initial vaccine – types 6, 11, 16 and 18 – have decreased by 56% in girls. And, in early 2015, Gardasil 9 was released offering protection against an additional five strains of HPV.

Although the HPV vaccination has been more effective than the CDC expected, inoculation rates have remained lower than desired. A study published in the Expert Review of Clinical Immunology found that some parents’ perceptions of the vaccine as unnecessary contributed to its lower adoption. Because the virus is transmitted sexually, many parents believe their children do not need the vaccine. To help improve awareness and education of the vaccine among parents, some doctors have focused primarily on the cancer prevention component, rather than transmission of the virus, according to health experts.

Some clinicians suggest that medical professionals begin talking to parents about HPV and cancer when their children are as young as nine. By discussing the medical detriments of the disease, instead of focusing on how it is contracted, physicians are able to reframe the dialogue and help parents focus on the long-term health of their children. One doctor says he asks patients, “If your doctor offered a vaccine that can prevent leukemia, would you get it?”

In addition, a new, lower dosage of the HPV vaccine may help increase vaccination rates. In late 2016, the CDC announced that children and teens under the age of 15 need only two doses of the HPV vaccine. Since that announcement, 69 of the top cancer centers in the country have endorsed the new recommendations. Early exposure, even with fewer doses, helps to strengthen the immune system against the virus and is just as effective as the previously-recommended three shots, according to a CDC director. The decrease from three to two doses may make it more feasible for parents to have their children complete the HPV immunization series. And, experts suggest the new recommended timing of doses allows for easier integration of the HPV vaccine into yearly checkups and physicals.

With changes in the delivery of both the communication and medication, doctors should feel more empowered to improve HPV vaccination rates. The combination of strong results from the vaccine and a decrease in dosage can help doctors advocate for the vaccine among parents they see in their practices and communities.