Industry Voices—More than ever, disease prevention is crucial. Don't forget the HPV vaccine

In recent months, vaccinations, along with in-person office visits, have often taken a back seat to battling COVID-19.

As health systems begin to reopen, they are prioritizing getting pediatric patients and high-risk adults with chronic conditions on track with their vaccination schedules before the fall flu season is upon us. According to a recent survey AMGA conducted among its members, however, adolescents (boys and girls between the ages of about 10 to 18) may be left behind. Delayed vaccinations may be placing our children at risk from the strains of HPV that lead to 90% of HPV-related cancers.

Fourteen million Americans acquire HPV infections each year, and approximately 92 people each day are diagnosed with an HPV-attributable cancer. Over the course of the past decade, health systems have ramped up their efforts to promote HPV vaccines for adolescents, thereby significantly mitigating their risk for contracting a strain of HPV that can lead to cancer.

AMGA Foundation, partnering with the American Cancer Society and the HPV Roundtable, recently launched a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)-funded, 18-month HPV Vaccination Pilot Collaborative to improve vaccination rates among adolescents served by medical groups and integrated health systems.

RELATED: HPV vaccination rates increase, CDC urges more effort to protect teens

Patient survivor and American voice actor Rob Paulsen knows the challenge of living with HPV firsthand. Paulsen, best known as the voice of Raphael in the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" animated series, shared his experience with collaborative participants at a recent meeting. Paulsen was the recipient of an aggressive treatment regimen after being diagnosed with metastatic squamous neck cancer with occult primary, a cancer caused by a strain of HPV. According to Paulsen, “As a person who's not had the advantage of the vaccine, I love to be a spokesperson, if you will. Simply because I can give people chapter and verse about the treatment. And I certainly don't regret it. But holy smoke—the treatment’s rough.”

Another anonymous patient spoke to me about her experience when she was in her early forties and was diagnosed with CIN1, a precancerous condition caused by HPV.

“While working at a hospital cancer center, I went for my yearly pap smear,” she said. ”This was 1992, and we would go every year back then. I was surprised to be diagnosed with CIN1. From there on in, I had to get pap smears every three months, and when it would progress to CIN2, my gyne-oncologist had to do more invasive treatments. I went through this ordeal, and, because I worked at an oncology center at the time, I was well aware that it could turn into cancer if I did not keep up with checkups. Finally, 12 years later, I was clear, but I still worry about it jumping back.” 

Her advice for parents and providers today is to make this vaccine a priority in order to eliminate the lion’s share of risk for HPV-related cancers. She related, “I was going back and forth for pap smears, every time fearing it had progressed, at a time in my life when I was working full time, taking care of my elderly parents and my teenage kids. The anxiety this diagnosis caused may have shaved years off my life.”

As health system leaders and providers, you may be asking yourself: What more can I do? If you aren’t already planning a back-to-school vaccine campaign, consider implementing one this year. And be sure to include the HPV vaccination. It has the potential to save lives and enable patients to live healthier and happier lives without the stress caused by an HPV-related cancer or pre-cancerous lesion diagnosis and the required ongoing diagnostic procedures and therapy.

COVID-19 has taught us not to take our health or the health of our loved ones for granted. Now is the time to apply this “lesson learned” and embrace the areas where we are fortunate enough to have some control of our future medical challenges. The HPV vaccine is a cancer-prevention vaccine. Now that’s an ounce of prevention that we can all agree is truly worth a pound of cure.

John Kennedy, M.D., is AMGA’s chief medical officer and president of AMGA Foundation.