Vaccines are the most effective way to prevent infectious diseases. Gov. Jerry Brown rightly signed a law that requires, starting July 1, 2016, that all children enrolled in public or private schools or day care be vaccinated against whooping cough, measles, polio and other diseases, regardless of parents’ religious or personal beliefs.
But frustratingly, the California mandate does not include the vaccine to protect against cervical, anal and oral cancers, and genital warts.
HPV vaccines have been around for 10 years. Three types exist, with the newest providing the highest protection against chronic infection and precancerous conditions among boys and girls. Despite the recommendations of major health groups, national data show only 57 percent of adolescent females and 35 percent of males received at least one dose of the three-dose HPV vaccine series in 2013. HPV vaccine has the lowest completion rate of any vaccine in the United States.
There may be several explanations for this. One is the short time that providers have available to stress the need for early vaccination during a normal medical visit, much less to address parents’ concerns about implicitly sanctioning sexual activity. But the vaccine is linked to age rather than sexual activity, and postponing it until after boys and girls start having sex decreases its effectiveness.
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Another reason for low vaccination rates is that it requires tremendous work, including training health care providers on how to promote HPV vaccine as a cancer-prevention tool similar to hepatitis B vaccine, which has a similar route of transmission. With hepatitis B, sex is not part of the discussion, and HPV should be treated the same way.
We must applaud Rhode Island for recently joining Washington, D.C., and Virginia for incorporating all vaccines recommended by pediatricians and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including HPV, into their school immunization regulations.
More than 14 million HPV infections occur annually in the United States. With such a sobering statistic, no sound justification can be made for HPV vaccines to be treated differently than other recommended vaccines. It’s time for solutions instead of excuses.
Brandon Brown is an assistant professor at the University of California, Riverside, School of Medicine.