Urgent call for action: Get cancer-preventing HPV vaccination back on track

May 21, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has interrupted delivery of key health services for children and adolescents,
including HPV vaccination for cancer prevention.

The National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated cancer centers across the U.S., including the University of Hawaiʻi Cancer Center, have issued a unanimous statement urging the nation’s physicians, parents, and young adults to get the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination back on track.

Dramatic drops in annual well visits and immunizations during the COVID-19 pandemic have caused a significant vaccination gap and lag in vital preventive services among U.S. children and adolescents—especially for the HPV vaccine.

Nearly 80 million Americans – one out of every 4 people – are infected with HPV, a virus that causes several types of cancers. Among these, more than 31,000 will be diagnosed with an HPV-related cancer this year. Despite those staggering figures and the availability of a vaccine to prevent HPV infections, HPV vaccination rates remain significantly lower than other recommended adolescent vaccines in the U.S. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, HPV vaccination rates lagged far behind other vaccines and other countries’ HPV vaccination rates. According to 2017 data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), fewer than half (49 percent) of adolescents were up to date on the HPV vaccine.

Those numbers have declined dangerously since the pandemic:

  1. Early in the pandemic, HPV vaccination rates among adolescents fell by 75 percent, resulting in a large cohort of unvaccinated children.
  2. Since March 2020, an estimated one million doses of HPV vaccine have been missed by adolescents with public insurance— a decline of 21 percent over pre-pandemic levels.

The U.S. has recommended routine HPV vaccination for females since 2006, and for males since 2011. Current recommendations are for routine vaccination at ages 11 or 12 or starting at age 9. Catch-up HPV vaccination is recommended through age 26.

In fall 2020, new vaccination requirements were implemented for all Hawaiʻi students entering the 7th grade. In addition to an HPV vaccination, students must provide documentation that they have received Tdap (tetanus-diptheria-pertusis) and MCV (meningococcal conjugate) vaccinations. The UH Cancer Center is an active member of the Hawaiʻi Comprehensive Cancer Coalition’s Vaccine-Preventable Cancers Workgroup, which was instrumental in updating the statewide immunization requirements policy.

Hawaiʻi is one of the few states that require HPV vaccinations to attend school,” said UH Cancer Center Director Randall Holcombe, MD, MBA. “This type of policy change will help to reduce the number of preventable HPV-associated cancers, and will positively impact public health outcomes throughout the state.”

NCI Cancer Centers strongly encourage parents to vaccinate their adolescents as soon as possible. The CDC recently authorized COVID-19 vaccination for 12-15-year-old children allowing for missed doses of routinely recommended vaccines, including HPV, to be administered at the same time. NCI Cancer Centers strongly urge action by health care systems and health care providers to identify and contact adolescents due for vaccinations and to use every opportunity to encourage and complete vaccination.

More information on HPV is available from the CDC and National HPV Vaccination Roundtable . This is the third time that all NCI-designated cancer centers have come together to issue a national call to action. All 71 cancer centers unanimously share the goal of sending a powerful message to parents, adolescents and health care providers about the importance of HPV vaccination for the elimination of HPV-related cancers.