Physician communication can push the needle on HPV vaccinations

By Aine Cryts

Nearly all sexually active people will contract at least one of more than 40 types of the human papillomavirus (HPV) over the course of their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While nearly 80 million Americans are currently infected, giving the three-part vaccine to boys and girls around the age of 11 or 12 can prevent future generations from contracting the virus or transmitting it to others.

Still, fewer than 42 percent of children between the ages of 13 and 17 received even one dose of the HPV vaccine in 2014. Fewer still receive all three shots, according to the CDC.

Changing these statistics is largely dependent on physicians, according to a recent article from The New York Times, which highlights research supporting the following factors to consider when discussing this topic with parents:

  • Discomfort about sex impedes discussions about the vaccine. There's no way around it: Many parents and doctors think that giving the vaccine to young adults may be, in effect, endorsing children's sexual activity. Thus, the most common reason that young adults don't get the HPV vaccine is that their physicians don't recommend it, according to a 2014 study published in the journal Pediatrics.
  • HPV vaccination has no impact on sexual activity. Despite adults' fears to the contrary, a growing body of research offers reassurance that the vaccine does not lead to child promiscuity. One 2012 study published in JAMA Pediatrics shows that girls were no less concerned about safe sexual behaviors after receiving the vaccines. Another study by a McGill University researcher revealed that those who received the vaccine were no more likely to get pregnant or to acquire a non-HPV-related sexually transmitted disease than those who had not received the vaccine.
  • Doctors have an influence. When physicians take the time to consult with young adults and their parents about the vaccination, it makes a difference. What's important is addressing the HPV vaccination as they do any other vaccination, according to the Times. "Just by letting parents know that HPV vaccination is very important for all 11- and 12-year-olds, physicians and other vaccine providers can do a lot to overcome the barriers that have kept coverage low in the U.S.," Melissa Gilkey, Ph.D., a behavioral scientist at Harvard Medical School, told the newspaper.

To learn more:
- read The New York Times article
- check out the Pediatrics study abstract 
- here's the McGill study (.pdf)
- read the CDC findings