June marks National Cancer Survivors Month – a time to recognize all individuals with a history of the disease, whether just diagnosed, in treatment or in remission. It’s also a time to highlight advancements in research and proven tools for cancer prevention that have helped 16.9 million cancer survivors in the US live cancer free and lead healthier, fuller lives.
One of those tools is the first and only vaccination that prevents multiple types of cancer – the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine.
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is an extremely common virus that affects everyone, regardless of sex or gender. The virus can cause 6 types of cancer, including cervical, vaginal, vulvar, anal, penile and oral/throat cancers. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 42 million Americans are currently infected with disease-causing HPV viruses. This year nearly 37,000 of those infected will be diagnosed with HPV-related cancers.
Following extensive clinical trials, the HPV vaccine was approved in 2006 and recommended for routine use in the U.S. Since then, HPV vaccination has become a critical public health tool for cancer prevention. We know that when delivered between 9 and 12 years of age, HPV vaccination provides almost 100% protection against HPV infections and cancers. That makes the vaccine an important prevention milestone for children, including childhood cancer survivors. To date, more than 270 million doses have been administered worldwide, including more than 120 million doses in the U.S.
Unfortunately, HPV vaccination coverage in the U.S. lags. In 2020, fewer than 55% of adolescents were up to date on HPV vaccination. That is far less than the national Healthy People 2030 goal of 80%. Vaccination rates declined significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic. An analysis cited by the CDC estimated that HPV vaccination rates were 75% lower during the pandemic compared with prior periods. Research suggests it will take up to 10 years to close the gap. Emerging evidence indicates that providers are deprioritizing HPV vaccination in their efforts to address health care needs delayed during the pandemic. This is especially worrisome since childhood cancer survivors are at high risk of developing subsequent HPV cancers as adults, cancers that are largely preventable.
At St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, we work with a team committed to making a world free of HPV cancers. This is why we recently launched Path to a Bright Future, a public awareness campaign to spotlight the benefits of on-time HPV vaccination for children ages 9–12. The campaign seeks to promote sound, relevant and appropriate interventions. The goal is to encourage equitable administration of HPV vaccination for all people and to stop HPV cancers before they start. Given the ongoing backslide in HPV vaccinations, we aim to directly engage with health care providers to highlight their role in recommending HPV vaccination. We also give providers the tools necessary for acknowledging and answering common questions from parents and caregivers.
Since its launch earlier this year, Path to a Bright Future has united more than 100 national, regional and local patient advocacy organizations; medical and public health experts; and HPV cancer survivors and caregivers. They are all committed to sharing far and wide that HPV vaccination is cancer prevention. The critical work of sharing the benefits of HPV vaccination as a tool for cancer prevention and increasing vaccination rates continues.
As National Cancer Survivors Month winds down, we celebrate life and the reality that cancer survivorship is possible. We also recognize the tools already at our disposal, such as HPV vaccination, and its vital importance in bringing an end to HPV cancer, including in cancer survivors. We hope you’ll join us in pledging to protect your children from HPV and HPV cancers.