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St. Jude, other top U.S. cancer centers call for urgent action to get cancer-preventing HPV vaccination on track

The COVID-19 pandemic has interrupted delivery of key health services for children and adolescents, including HPV vaccination for cancer prevention.

Memphis, Tennessee, May 20, 2021

A colorful statue of children playing in a courtyard.

St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and other NCI-designated cancer centers issue a joint statement urging the nation’s health care systems, physicians, and families to get the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination back on track. 

St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital has partnered with 70 other National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated cancer centers and organizations to issue a joint statement urging the nation’s health care systems, physicians, parents, children and young adults to get human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccinations on track.

Specifically, NCI Cancer Centers strongly encourage the following immediate actions:

  1. For health care systems and providers to immediately identify and contact adolescent patients who are due for vaccinations and encourage them to complete vaccinations
  2. For parents to have their adolescent children vaccinated as soon as possible

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—especially for the HPV vaccine. The pandemic also has exacerbated health disparities, leaving underserved adolescents at even greater risk for missed doses of this cancer prevention vaccine.

“The HPV vaccine is key to preventing several types of cancer. The pandemic has caused a worrisome vaccination gap in the U.S., especially for adolescents,” said Charles W. M. Roberts, M.D., Ph.D., director of the St. Jude Comprehensive Cancer Center and executive vice president at St. Jude. “Well-child doctor visits and back-to-school vaccinations are down. To protect our children and communities, we must get back on track as a nation with adolescent vaccination, including HPV vaccination.”

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 also lagged far behind those of other countries. According to 2019 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only 54% of adolescents were up to date on the HPV vaccine.

Those numbers have declined dangerously since the pandemic:

  • Early in the pandemic, HPV vaccination rates among adolescents fell by 75%, resulting in a large cohort of unvaccinated children.
  • Since March 2020, an estimated 1 million doses of HPV vaccine have been missed by adolescents with public insurance—a decline of 21% over pre-pandemic levels.
  • Adolescents with private insurance may be missing hundreds of thousands of doses of HPV vaccine.

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.

NCI Cancer Centers strongly encourage parents to vaccinate their adolescents as soon as possible. The CDC recently authorized COVID-19 vaccination for children ages 12–15 years, allowing for missed doses of routinely recommended vaccines, including HPV, to be administered at the same time. NCI Cancer Centers strongly urge action by health care systems and health care providers to identify and contact adolescents due for vaccinations and to use every opportunity to encourage and complete vaccination.

“HPV vaccination is cancer prevention,” 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. “Now is the time to catch up on missed doses of HPV vaccine to prevent future cancers. Vaccinating our adolescents against COVID-19 is the perfect opportunity to ensure children are also protected from HPV. This is particularly important among populations that have experienced intensified inequities as a result of the pandemic, including Black, Indigenous and other people of color; those who live in rural areas; sexual minorities; and medically underserved adolescents.”

More information on HPV is available from the CDC and National HPV Vaccination Roundtable. This is the fourth time that all NCI-designated cancer centers have united to issue a national call to action. All 71 cancer centers unanimously share the goal of sending a powerful message to parents, adolescents and health care providers about the importance of HPV vaccination for the elimination of HPV-related cancers. 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. 

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.