Editorial: HPV vaccinations can save kids from misery and death

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Health officials can do little more than make educated guesses about how many teenagers have received HPV vaccinations in the United States. It’s not one of the vaccinations required to attend school. Any data are based on voluntary reporting.

But health officials from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local physicians agree that the vaccination rates, whatever they are, are unacceptably low.

That was the conclusion of the CDC late last month after it published the results of the 2013 National Immunization Survey-Teen.

The human papillomavirus vaccination ideally is given to boys and girls between 11 and 13 years old. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease. Almost everyone is exposed to it at some point. And though it has mild or even no symptoms for people infected, it contributes to some particularly nasty cancers later in life.

According to the CDC, HPV is linked to most of the cases of cervical and anal cancer and to many of the cases of penile, vaginal and vulvar cancers. It is also a suspect in a number of oropharyngeal cancers.

The HPV vaccination provides girls more than 90 percent protection from those cancers. Imagine giving your child a gift like that.

Parents should be flocking to clinics and doctor’s office demanding this vaccination. Strangely, they aren’t.

The CDC survey uses random-dialing calls to find households with teens between 13 to 17 years. Though the study found modest increases of people saying their kids had received this important vaccination between 2012 and 2013, it still remains low – just 57 percent for girls and 34 percent for boys.

The real rates are probably even lower.

UC Davis pediatric resident Dr. Camha Le said there are many reasons for that. For one, most vaccinations are administered when people are babies, and babies spend a lot more time visiting doctor’s offices than teens.

Another challenge is that the vaccination isn’t a one-time event. It takes three doses during six months to get fully immunized.

And then there’s the sex aspect. Because HPV is a sexually transmitted disease, it adds a level of discomfort in discussions for parents who might want not to imagine their preteen son or daughter’s sex life.

“A lot of parents don’t like hearing that,” Le said, adding that she focuses on how the vaccination is most effective given to youngsters before they start having sex.

However, physicians are the single biggest factor to help increase vaccination rates among their patients. Parents will follow their doctor’s recommendation, said Moon Chen, associate director for cancer control for the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center.

But public education helps, too.

To that end, Sacramento County public health officials and the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center started working on a plan this spring to increase HPV vaccination rates. One of the ways they will do that is by starting pilot vaccination programs in two as-yet unnamed county schools as soon as this fall, Chen said.

Local health officials deserve credit for jumping on the HPV vaccination bandwagon even before this latest grim CDC report. Their efforts can help a generation of boys and girls avoid horrible disease and death later in life.

But parents and family members must take responsibility as well.

If you have an unimmunized teen in your life, or know someone who does, do them an enormous favor and call the Sacramento County Immunization Assistance Program at 875-SHOT.