August 10, 2021

HPV vaccination rates drop during pandemic: Doctors say it’s time to get back on track to protect teens

A parent with their arm around a teenage child

With a new age of vaccinations dawning before our eyes, aimed at stopping COVID-19, cancer physicians say it’s also time to turn our attention to a more familiar immunization: The HPV vaccine.

HPV, or human papilloma virus, a very common virus, can be transmitted as early as adolescence through any type of sexual contact, and has been linked to several cancers, including cervical, penile, vaginal, vulvar, head and neck cancers. Most people are susceptible to the virus, which is why physicians stress the importance of vaccinating against HPV at a young age to prevent a viral-induced cancer from developing.

“It’s a very safe vaccine and it works very well,” said Noelle LoConte, MD, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Wisconsin and UW Carbone Cancer Center member, who also noted the vaccine is backed by over a decade of research.

Like the COVID-19 vaccine, the HPV vaccine is critical in preventing disease. But as the COVID-19 vaccines cover most age groups, the HPV vaccine is specifically approved for ages 9-26, and is routinely recommended for both males and females beginning at 11 to 12 years of age.

Due to the recommended age range for the vaccine, some families might be hesitant to explore this as an option for their children as it relates to sexual health. As with any vaccine, LoConte said it’s natural to have questions, especially when it comes to vaccinations for children. But she said it’s her responsibility to make sure parents have the information they need in order to make an informed decision.

“My strategy with communication around vaccinations is to welcome the conversations,” LoConte said. “I think it's having authentic relationships with people, treating them with respect and welcoming the questions.”

She adds that it’s all about fostering a mutual relationship between the parents and the experts, especially when the topic addresses adolescent sexuality. “There’s no value judgement here,” LoConte said. “It’s just providing protection for the child against cancer.”

That said, there is an important distinction that parents should know: The HPV vaccine itself is a cancer prevention vaccine and not a sexually transmitted infection (STI) vaccine. HPV-caused cancers typically do not show up until decades after exposure to the virus, prompting years of uncertainty if not vaccinated at the recommended age. With years of research, parents can have peace of mind knowing that the vaccine is effective and safe for their children — and will serve a meaningful impact long after adolescence.

What concerns physicians like LoConte, however, is that the vaccination rates for HPV have steadily declined during the pandemic. With an influx of COVID-19 patients coming into hospitals and clinics, many families opted for telemedicine and other options for personal medical care or decided to forego care altogether. “We took a big step back as far as preventive care, including the HPV vaccine,” said LoConte. “We’re now playing a serious game of catch-up.”

Moving forward, LoConte recommends that any parents with young adolescents who may have missed a shot during the pandemic make plans now to get vaccinated. Shots are available at hospitals and clinics across the state and are frequently covered by most insurance plans. Young adolescents typically require two doses of the vaccine, though some older teens might require a third dose.

The UW Carbone Cancer Center has partnered with the Wisconsin Cancer Collaborative to provide outreach and education for those who want to learn more about the vaccine, as well as other cancer prevention initiatives. There are many resources available, all backed by top oncology experts in the state.

UW Carbone was also one of 70 NCI-designated Cancer Centers across the United States to recently join St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in encouraging physicians and healthcare systems around the nation to help get HPV vaccinations back on track.

And as always, LoConte encourages parents to reach out to their physician or child’s pediatrician to simply ask questions, become informed, and have the conversation it takes to reduce the burden of cancer for you and your loved ones.

After all, as a physician — and a parent herself — LoConte realizes the impact and importance of taking action now to protect your children in the future. “All three of my children were vaccinated, I was not fooling around,” she said. “This is probably one of the most important advances in cancer in my career.”