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HPV vaccine: Why aren't children getting it?

Preventing cancer with HPV vaccine
Preventing cancer with HPV vaccine 02:16

Cancer is a subject of enormous complexity. And imagine this: a vaccine that can actually prevent cancer … if only people would take it. Here's Dr. Tara Narula:

One in four Americans -- about 80 million of us -- are infected with the human papillomavirus, or HPV.

It's the most common sexually transmitted infection, although most people don't develop symptoms or health problems. But around 30,000 cases of HPV-associated cancers occur in the United States every year.

HPV is the main cause of cervical cancer in women, and the cause of many vulvar, vaginal, throat, tongue, tonsilar, anal and penile cancers.

The good news is there's a vaccine for HPV which can prevent the majority of these cancers. It's recommended for all kids ages 11 or 12 years, before they're exposed to the virus, which is when it works best.

Here's the bad news: only 63% of girls and 50% of boys are getting the vaccine. It's the most underutilized immunization for children.

For cancer doctors, this is a public health crisis. So who is responsible?

The problem lies in part with pediatricians and other providers who haven't been aggressive enough in talking to parents about it.  Studies show that a forceful endorsement from a physician is the most important factor in whether children get the vaccine.

But parents are also a big factor here. Many choose to skip the vaccine rather than acknowledge their child will eventually be sexually active. A recent TV ad portrays adults diagnosed with cancer asking their parents: "Who knew that there was something that could have helped protect me from HPV when I was 11 or 12, way before I would even be exposed to it? Did you know? Mom? Dad?"

Merck - by miOttawa on YouTube

For others, there's concern about the safety of the vaccine. But dozens of studies confirm it's safe.

Finally, consider this: Canada, Australia, the U.K., even Rwanda have HPV vaccination rates nearly DOUBLE ours.

The CDC has been trying to get the message across: the HPV vaccine prevents cancer.  It saves lives.

We need to do better at protecting our children from cancers they never need to get.

For more on HPV:

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