A vaccine that prevents the virus that causes nearly all cervical cancers has been a success, according to a new study. The rate of infections with strains of the human papillomavirus decreased by more than half among teenaged girls after the HPV virus was made available in 2006, marking a success for a vaccine that has been the topic of heated controversy. This is important news for Latinas, who account for the highest incident rate of HPV-associated cervical cancer, according to the CDC. Among men, Hispanics have higher rates of HPV-associated penile cancers than white non-Hispanics.
According to a study published Wednesday in The Journal of Infectious Diseases, the infection rate with the strains of the human papillomavirus was cut by 56 percent, from 11.5 percent in 2003 to 2006 to 5.1 percent from 2007 to 2010 in pre-teens and young women ages 14 to 19. The study also found that even one shot of a three-dose series offered an 82 percent chance of protection against HPV.
The findings were the result of a national study conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics every two years among women ages 14 to 59. Women across Hispanic and Mexican heritage were included in the study, but survey results by ethnicity were not provided in the report.
The news follows seven years of political controversy following the introduction of the HPV vaccination: Texas Governor Rick Perry rescinded a state-wide HPV vaccine mandate he had instituted in 2007; in 2011, Rep. Michele Bachman’s inquiry as to whether the vaccination could cause “mental retardation” made major headlines.
Roughly 79 million Americans – the majority in their late teens and early 20s – are infected with HPV. About 14 million people become infected annually, says the Centers for Disease Control, making it the most common sexually transmitted disease nationwide. Nearly all cervical cancers are caused by strains of HPV and the CDC recommends that girls receive the first of three doses of the HPV vaccine by eleven years old. The CDC advises that boys ages 11 or 12 receive the vaccine, as do “males aged 13 through 21 years who did not get any or all three recommended doses when they were younger.”
“The report should be a wake-up call to our nation to protect the next generation by increasing HPV vaccination rates,” Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told NBC News. “These are striking results because we can protect the next generation of adolescents and girls against cancer.”
Deborah Parra-Medina, PhD, professor at the Institute for Health Promotion Research at the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, said, “the study reveals very good news but we need to continue our efforts to promote the vaccine because Latinos have the lowest vaccine uptake and completion rates,” adding that “getting the vaccine helps prevent the spread of the virus among the younger population and thus prevents cervical cancer in the future. Right now, preventing new cases of cancer is key to improving Latino health.”
The Department of Health and Human Services has made nationwide HPV vaccination rates a priority, with its Healthy People 2020 initiative, a national health promotion project. By 2020, the target for vaccination rates is 80 percent of girls between the ages of 13 and 15. But in South Texas, where Dr. Parra-Medina practices, only 40 percent of girls receive the vaccine and of that number, only 23 percent complete all three doses.
“We are falling short of the national goal because of lack of access and care, as well as misinformation concerning the vaccine,” notes Dr. Parra-Medina, who runs a community health program in the lower Rio Grande Valley to teach women about cervical cancer prevention through the HPV vaccine. “But it’s important for parents to know that the vaccine is the primary means of preventing HPV. The only way it will work is it we immunize before there’s any chance that the child has had exposure – that’s we are recommending it as early as eleven.”
And there are appropriate ways for parents to discuss HPV prevention with their child, says Dr. Parra-Medina, noting that many parents shy away from discussing sexually transmitted infections with pre-teens and young children.
Try explaining that the vaccine will help prevent them from getting a disease in the future that can cause cancer, she suggests, and end the conversation with “It’s important that I protect you from that risk.”
“Depending on the child’s maturity level and interest, you can get more detailed over time,” says Dr. Parra-Medina.
“But convey that this is important to prevent future illness – it’s a necessary precaution for all Latino children.”