Nearly 80 million Americans – one out of every four people – are infected with human papillomavirus (HPV). And of those millions, more than 31,000 will be diagnosed with an HPV-related cancer this year. Despite those staggering figures and the availability of a vaccine to prevent the infections that cause these cancers, HPV vaccination rates remain low in the United States.
Hollings Cancer Center has partnered with 69 other National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated cancer centers to issue a statement urging for increased HPV vaccination and screening to eliminate HPV-related cancers, starting with cervical cancer. These institutions collectively recognize insufficient vaccination as a public health threat and call upon the nations’ physicians, parents and young adults to take advantage of this rare opportunity to eliminate several different types of cancer in men and women.
“This joint statement from the nation’s top cancer centers shows a united front in recognizing low rates of HPV vaccination as being a serious public health issue,” said Gustavo Leone, Ph.D., director of Hollings Cancer Center (HCC) at the Medical University of South Carolina. “We’re excited to be a part of it and are ramping up our efforts to increase statewide awareness.”
Helping to lead this charge is Kathleen Cartmell, Ph.D., an HCC cancer prevention and control researcher, who enthusiastically supports the consensus statement, particularly given the need the state has to address its low vaccination rates.
“We have an unprecedented opportunity in South Carolina to prevent HPV-related cancers. Each year approximately 582 people in our state are diagnosed with an HPV-related cancer. Most of these cancers can be prevented with HPV vaccination. If we can each find ways to work in our own communities to help ensure that our adolescents are vaccinated against HPV, we can protect the next generation of kids from getting future cancers that could have been prevented,” she said.
South Carolina has some of the highest rates of HPV-related cancers in the nation and is among those states with the lowest HPV vaccination rates. Each year in South Carolina, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) conducts the National Immunization Survey-Teen to monitor vaccination rates among adolescents ages 13 to 17. In South Carolina, only 31 percent of girls ages 13 to 17 and 27 percent of boys have completed the HPV vaccination series.
“As a South Carolinian who has interacted with cancer patients for so many years at the Hollings Cancer Center, nothing would make me happier than to see us eliminate HPV-related cancers in our state.”
Anna R. Giuliano, Ph.D., director of the Center for Infection Research in Cancer at Moffitt Cancer Center, said the vaccine provides an opportunity to eliminate multiple HPV-related cancers beginning with cervical cancer. “To accomplish this goal, we need to utilize our most important tool – HPV vaccination. We are asking health care providers to stand with us and recommend the HPV vaccine. Parents can join with us by asking their doctors about vaccination.”
Vaccination rates remain significantly lower than other recommended adolescent vaccines in the U.S. According to 2016 data from the CDC, less than 50 percent of girls and 38 percent of boys completed the recommended vaccine series. Research shows there are a number of barriers to overcome to improve vaccination rates, including a lack of strong recommendations from physicians and parents not understanding that this vaccine protects against several types of cancer in men and women. HPV causes multiple cancers including cervical, anal, oropharyngeal (middle throat) and other genital cancers.
HPV experts from the nation’s top cancer centers, along with partners from the National Cancer Institute, CDC and the American Cancer Society, are meeting June 7 and 8 in Salt Lake City. The goal is to discuss a path to eliminate cancers caused by HPV, including ways to reduce barriers to vaccination, as well as to share education, training and intervention strategies to improve vaccination rates.
Giuliano said the U.S. has an unprecedented opportunity not just to prevent cancers caused by HPV but also to eliminate them. “This means getting to a point in time when cancers such as cervical cancer are no longer diagnosed in our country.
This is the third year that all NCI-designated cancer centers have come together to issue a national call to action. All 70 NCI-designated 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.
Cartmell, who will be attending the conference in Utah, said it’s an ambitious goal but an important one.
HCC is planning a statewide campaign to raise awareness about the urgency for HPV vaccination in South Carolina. To carry out this work, the center has partnered with state organizations that include the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, S.C. Cancer Alliance and American Cancer Society.
Cartmell said during the three-year campaign, HCC will sponsor presentations at healthcare provider conferences across the state to increase the focus on HPV vaccination and conduct a social media and marketing campaign to encourage HPV vaccination. She also will be working to engage regional health systems across the state to encourage planning and action at the local level to increase HPV vaccination rates.
“We are very passionate about the potential we have right now to increase HPV vaccination in South Carolina. Most importantly, we invite everyone to join us by working within their own communities and organizations to encourage HPV vaccination.”