The HPV Vaccine Is Working Even Though Most Girls Still Don’t Have It

February 22, 2016, 4:20 PM UTC
Bottles of Merck & Co.'s cervical cancer vaccine Gardasil ar
UNITED STATES - MARCH 09: Bottles of Merck & Co.'s cervical cancer vaccine Gardasil are arranged for a photo at a pharmacy in New York, U.S., on Monday, March 9, 2009. Merck & Co.'s $41.1 billion purchase of Schering-Plough Corp. adds experimental drugs for blood clots, infections and schizophrenia and allows the companies to speed research on biotechnology drugs. (Photo by Jb Reed/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Photograph by Bloomberg via Getty Images

Since the vaccination for human papillomavirus, or HPV, has become widely available, rates of the sexually-transmitted disease have dropped by almost two-thirds, according to new research published Monday.

The study found that even among women in their early 20s, which have lower vaccination rates, the prevalence of HPV was down by more than a third. In short, within six years of the vaccine’s introduction, there’s been a 64% decrease in the most dangerous strains of HPV among girls aged 14 to 19 and a 34% decrease among women aged 20 to 24 years, according to federal researchers.

The latest study, published in scientific journal Pediatrics, used data from the Centers for Disease Control to explore the prevalence of HPV in females from both pre- and post-vaccine groups. Researchers found that there was no decrease in HPV prevalence for the older age group that didn’t have access to the vaccine.

HPV has long been known to cause cervical cancer, and despite new evidence that proves the vaccine’s effectiveness, only about 40% of girls and 20% of boys between ages 13 and 17 have received the immunization. Rates are lower in boys since the HPV vaccination for males became widely recommended only in 2011. It’s been recommended for females ages 11 through 26 since mid-2006.

There’s a number of challenges that have keep HPV vaccine rates low, despite HPV’s connection to serious health consequences beyond cervical cancer. The disease has also been connected to genital warts as well as anal, penile, mouth, and throat cancers. The low uptake has been called a “crisis” by some medical leaders, including Noel Brewer, chair of the National HPV Vaccination Roundtable.


“We’ve been so successful with other adolescent vaccines, Tdap and meningitis, and yet we’ve failed to get high levels of coverage for HPV vaccination. There will be a clear cost in terms of deaths from cervical and other cancers that we could prevent,” Brewer told the National Cancer Institute. “So, I think calling it a ‘crisis’ is fair.”

One reason for the low vaccination rates is health care providers only half-heartedly recommending the multi-dose vaccine, said Brewer. Another hurdle is it’s implicit association with underage sex, which makes some parents uncomfortable enough to avoid seeking it out. Also, the vaccine is still largely optional and requires multiple doctors visits to complete the three-dose regimen — all of which present further challenges to increase immunization rates. An HPV vaccination is only required in Virginia, Rhode Island, and the District of Columbia.

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