Though the vaccine against human papilloma virus is highly effective in preventing certain forms of cancer, the number of preteens getting the vaccine is still dismally low, doctors from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Thursday.
"One of the top five reasons parents listed is that it hadn't been recommended to them by a doctor or nurse," the CDC's Dr. Anne Schuchat told reporters at a press briefing.
"Parents who aren't planning to vaccinate lacked knowledge and didn't hear a physician recommendation," said Schuchat, who directs the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. "We don't think it's an issue of politics. This is something that parents seem to be open to."
Federal health officials have for several years been recommending that all preteen boys and girls be vaccinated around age 11 or 12 — before the initiation of sexual activity. That's when the vaccine has been shown to be most protective against HPV infections that can lead to cervical cancer, genital warts and oral and anal cancers.
But data from the national survey released Thursday, and published in this week's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, suggest that only 57 percent of young women ages 13-17 — and only 35 percent of young men that age — have received one or more vaccine doses.
Every year more 27,000 people in the U.S. get cancer caused by HPV, Schuchat said.
Protection against the virus did go up a little bit in 2013, the survey showed, compared with 2012, when 53.8 percent of young women and 20.8 percent of young men had received the vaccine. Still, more needs to be done, Schuchat said.
Doctors and nurses are missing many good opportunities to vaccinate for HPV, she said. For example, they are already successfully immunizing preteens at a high rate against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis (Tdap), and against meningitis. Roughly 77 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds have been immunized against meningitis, and about 86 percent have received the Tdap vaccine.
The problem is not that doctors are reluctant to give the vaccine, Schuchat said; it's more often a problem of miscommunication. Surveys show many are actually forgetting to mention it to patients.
"Physicians need to know that the vaccines they give can prevent very serious cancers in the U.S.," she said.
At every appointment for adolescents, doctors should tell parents, " 'Today there are three recommended vaccines,' " Schuchat advised. Had shots against HPV been administered when other routine vaccines were given to preteens in the last several years, she says, about 91 percent of today's 14-year-old girls would be protected.
NIS-Teen, which collected information on more than 18,000 teens in the 2013 survey, has been collecting vaccination information since 2006 through use of random-digit-dialing of both landlines and cellphones. After a teen's parent or guardian provided permission to contact the teen's health provider, the survey team mailed the parents a questionnaire. Results from the survey were then verified via a check of medical records.