HPV vaccine rates 50 percent under target in state, nationwide

Despite a national push to vaccinate boys and girls against HPV, rates still fall behind the CDC’s 80 percent target.

Keaton Schmitt

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hopes 80 percent of Americans will be immunized by 2020, fewer than half of Minnesotans have received the Human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, prompting action by some medical professionals.

Nationwide, only about 40 percent of teenage females and 22 percent of males receive the HPV immunization, according to the CDC. Though Minnesota’s vaccination rates run high, historically, HPV coverage falls in line with national levels — 42.5 percent for females and 13.6 percent for males.

University of Minnesota students are vaccinated at higher rates, at about 57 percent for women and 35 percent for men, according to Boynton Health Service’s 2015 College Student Health Survey.

The Minnesota Department of Health released a statement last month, reminding parents to vaccinate their children in light of the state’s low HPV immunization rates.

“We are excited to see high immunization rates for [tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis] and meningococcal, but rates for HPV and flu are lower than we’d like, even though they are just as important,” Kristen Ehresmann, director of the Infectious Disease Division, said in the statement.

For the last six years, the CDC has pushed vaccination through its Healthy People 2020 campaign, aiming for 80 percent immunization coverage by that year.

But because the HPV vaccine was only recommended for girls when it was released in 2006 — and because some doctors are reluctant to discuss protection against sexually transmitted diseases during routine visits — both boys and girls remain under-vaccinated, and at risk for HPV and related cancers, said Denise Dunn, Minnesota Department of Health Vaccine Preventable Disease assistant section manager.

“For some reason people are treating this vaccine differently,” Dunn said, adding that reasons behind the abnormally low rate are hazy.

When the vaccine was released for girls, the CDC left the decision to vaccinate up to individual health care providers, Dunn said. It has since been recommended for all patients.

And while boys are at equal risk of contracting and spreading HPV, “in a lot of ways, we’re five years behind with the boys,” she said. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved it for use in males in 2009.

HPV is spread through sexual contact, and often shows little to no symptoms in men, according to the CDC. The center recommends children ages 11 and 12 get the vaccine.

Sometimes, the immune system can clear the infection naturally, said Linda Carson, the University Medical School OBGYN department chair. When it doesn’t, it can cause genital warts and in some cases, cervical, mouth or throat, and anal cancers.

For the last four or five years, Dunn said the health department has reached out to doctors, urging them to recommend the vaccine to all boys and girls.

The University offers vaccination information to incoming students, said Boynton public health and communications director Dave Golden said.