Today, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, 15 leading academic and freestanding cancer centers with membership in the Association of American Cancer Institutes (AACI), all National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated cancer centers—among them 70 AACI members—and other organizations have issued a joint statement urging the nation’s health care systems, physicians, parents, children and young adults to get human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccinations and other recommended vaccinations back on track during National Immunization Awareness Month.
The call to action comes during National Immunization Awareness Month. The organizations urge the following actions as children head back to school:
- Health care systems’ staff and providers should immediately identify and contact parents of adolescents who are due for vaccinations and encourage them to complete vaccinations.
- Parents should have their adolescent children vaccinated as soon as possible. A list of recommended vaccines is available on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website.
Dramatic drops in annual well-child 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. HPV vaccinations have been especially affected. The pandemic also has increased health disparities, leaving underserved adolescents at even greater risk for missed doses of this cancer prevention vaccine.
Back-to-school season and vaccinations
"It is ‘back to school’ time in the U.S. and an ideal time to catch up on any missed vaccines for our children, including the cancer-preventing HPV vaccination, to keep children, schools and communities protected,” said Heather Brandt, Ph.D., director of the HPV Cancer Prevention Program at St. Jude and coordinator for the joint statement from NCI Cancer Centers and the AACI. "Parents should know that recommended vaccinations may be administered at the same time as the COVID-19 vaccination for children 12 and older."
AACI Executive Director Jennifer W. Pegher added: “HPV prevention, screening and treatment is a major goal of AACI cancer centers. COVID-19 vaccination is a good opportunity for parents to get their children the HPV vaccine and other recommended vaccines.”
Brandt and her colleagues are advocates for the HPV vaccine, which is key to preventing several types of cancer. 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 HPV-related cancers 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 in the United States also lagged far behind those of other countries. According to 2019 data from the CDC, only 54% of adolescents were up to date on the HPV vaccine. Those numbers have declined dangerously since the pandemic:
The pandemic has caused a gap in all vaccinations, including HPV, and especially for adolescents, according to the CDC. As of August 2021, recommended vaccinations for adolescents remain in greater deficit as compared to those for younger children:
- Whooping cough (Tdap) – down 16.7%
- HPV cancer prevention – down 18.4%
- Meningitis (Meningococcal conjugate) – down 13.7%
“Disparities in adherence to recommended vaccinations remain a major concern because not all children have experienced the pandemic in the same ways,” Brandt said. “Adolescents with private insurance may be missing hundreds of thousands of doses of HPV vaccine in addition to the known deficits experienced among adolescents who are publicly insured.”
HPV vaccine recommendations
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 or starting at age 9. 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 consists of two doses for children who get the first dose at ages 9–14, three doses for immunocompromised people and three doses for those who start the series at age 15 or older.
More information on HPV is available from the CDC and National HPV Vaccination Roundtable. The cancer centers and institutes unanimously share the goal of sending a powerful message to health care providers, parents and adolescents about the importance of HPV vaccination for the elimination of HPV-related cancers. National 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.
National Immunization Awareness Month is an annual observance held in August to highlight the importance of vaccination for people of all ages.
St. Jude Children's Research Hospital
St. Jude Children's Research Hospital is leading the way the world understands, treats and cures childhood cancer and other life-threatening diseases. It is the only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center devoted solely to children. Treatments developed at St. Jude have helped push the overall childhood cancer survival rate from 20% to 80% since the hospital opened more than 50 years ago. St. Jude freely shares the breakthroughs it makes, and every child saved at St. Jude means doctors and scientists worldwide can use that knowledge to save thousands more children. Families never receive a bill from St. Jude for treatment, travel, housing and food — because all a family should worry about is helping their child live. To learn more, visit stjude.org or follow St. Jude on social media at @stjuderesearch.