A teen girl gets an HPV shot. Photo by Getty images.
Since the introduction of a vaccine to prevent cervical cancer in 2006, the number of new infections of human papillomavirus or HPV among teen girls has plummeted in the United States, Centers for Disease Control officials announced on Wednesday.
Among 14- to 19-year-olds, vaccine-type HPV prevalence dropped by a full 56 percent, according to a study published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases. CDC officials said the results were even better than expected, possibly because vaccination rates may be contributing to “herd immunity,” meaning those who aren’t vaccinated are partially protected because less of the disease is circulating in the general population.
CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden said the report “should be a wake-up call to our nation to protect the next generation” by increasing vaccination rates against the sexually transmitted infection that can lead to cervical cancer.
Despite a long-standing recommendation that nearly all teen girls receive the shots, only about a third of those 13-17 are fully vaccinated. Frieden noted that even comparatively poor countries such as Rwanda have vaccinated more than 80 percent of their teen girls.
“Our low vaccination rates represent 50,000 preventable tragedies — 50,000 girls alive today will develop cervical cancer over their lifetime that would have been prevented if we reach 80 percent vaccination rates,” he said. “For every year we delay in doing so, another 4,400 girls will develop cervical cancer in their lifetimes.”
Some parents, doctors and conservative organizations protest universal vaccination, saying that it could promote sexual activity among teens and potentially open young people to more harm (watch a NewsHour debate about the idea of mandatory HPV testing here). But Frieden said that waiting until teens are sexually active “misses the point” by not allowing the vaccine enough time to become fully effective against potential infection.
In 2006, the CDC first recommended that girls age 11 and 12 routinely receive the vaccine to protect against developing cancer or spreading HPV to sexual partners later in life. They followed it with a similar recommendation for boys in 2011.
But relatively few families followed the recommendation due to “all the controversy that has swirled around the vaccine,” Rob Stein of the Washington Post told the NewsHour’s Jeffrey Brown in 2011. “This is one of those health issues that’s been kind of bogged down and got kind of sucked into the politics and economics of the some of the issues that it raises.” Watch the full interview:
The disease — back in the news lately after actor Michael Douglas blamed his throat cancer on oral sex and HPV — infects 79 million Americans, according to the CDC. Most are in their late teens and early 20s. About 14 million more people become infected each year.
HPV leads to about 19,000 cancers each year among U.S. women — primarily cervical cancer — and about 8,000 cancers in U.S. men, largely throat cancer.
Frieden pointed to the new study as proof that those kinds of numbers are no longer necessary.
“The bottom line is that it’s possible to protect a generation from cancer and we’ve got to do it,” he said.