Hollings, other top US cancer centers call for urgent action to get HPV vaccination back on track

May 20, 2021
a gloved hand holds an hpv vaccine bottle
The COVID-19 pandemic has interrupted delivery of key health services for children and adolescents, including HPV vaccination for cancer prevention. iStock

MUSC Hollings Cancer Center has partnered with 70 other National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated cancer centers to issue a joint statement urging the nation’s health care systems, 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. The pandemic also has exacerbated health disparities, leaving Black, Indigenous and other people of color, rural and sexual minority adolescents at even greater risk for missed doses of this cancer prevention vaccine.

Nearly 80 million Americans — 1 out of every 4 people — are infected with HPV, a virus that causes six types of cancers. Of those millions, nearly 36,000 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 routinely recommended vaccines and other countries’ HPV vaccination rates. According to 2019 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), just more than half (54%) of adolescents were up to date on the HPV vaccine.

Those numbers have declined dangerously since the pandemic:

  • Early in the pandemic, HPV vaccination rates among adolescents fell by 75%, resulting in a large cohort of unvaccinated children.
  • Since March 2020, an estimated 1 million doses of HPV vaccine have been missed by adolescents with public insurance — a decline of 21% over pre-pandemic levels.
  • Adolescents with private insurance may be missing hundreds of thousands of doses of HPV vaccine.

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. Catch-up HPV vaccination is recommended through age 26. Adults aged 27 through 45 should talk with their health care providers about HPV vaccination because some people who have not been vaccinated might benefit. The HPV vaccine series is two doses for children who get the first dose at ages 9 through 14 and three doses for those who get the first dose at ages 15 and older and for immunocompromised people.

NCI cancer centers strongly encourage parents to vaccinate their adolescents as soon as possible. The CDC recently authorized COVID-19 vaccination for 12- to 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 providers to identify and contact adolescents due for vaccinations and to use every opportunity to encourage and complete vaccination. 

The best cancer prevention is a vaccine that keeps people from developing a cancer, said Marvella Ford, Ph.D., associate director of Population Sciences and Cancer Disparities at Hollings. She’s been part of Hollings Cancer Center’s four-year HPV initiative aimed at raising awareness about how the vaccine prevents six cancers, including cervical and certain head and neck cancers. That initiative has helped to raise rates in the state from being among the lowest to now being on par with the national vaccination rates, but there’s still progress to be made.

line chart showing estimated hpv vaccination coverage from 2016 to 2019 in south carolina and united states 
HPV vaccination rates in South Carolina now equal or exceed overall national rates based on 2019 survey data.

The next phase of the initiative will be the rollout of a mini-mobile van in the fall to provide HPV vaccinations in rural areas to help to reach medically underserved populations, an important mission of Hollings, which is the state’s only National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center, she said.

“The vaccine has proved to be safe and effective, and it provides protection against six HPV-related cancers. We want to make sure parents know about how they can protect their children,” Ford said.

More information on HPV is available at this Hollings HPV website and from the CDC and National HPV Vaccination Roundtable. This is the fourth 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 health care systems, physicians, parents, and young adults about the importance of HPV vaccination for the elimination of HPV-related cancers.

Organizations endorsing this statement include the Association of American Cancer Institutes; American Association for Cancer Research; American Cancer Society; American Society of Clinical Oncology; American Society of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology; American Society of Preventive Oncology; and the Prevent Cancer Foundation. Read the full statement.