A recent study shows significant results as a vaccine combats HPV which can lead to cancer.
A recent study shows the HPV vaccine has reduced rates of precancerous cervical cells. Credit: Flickr Creative Commons / Ed Uthman

The vaccine for human papillomavirus (HPV) is far more effective than expected, with significantly reduced rates of genital warts and precancerous cervical cells since it was introduced more than 10 years ago, a study published Wednesday found.

HPV is a common sexually transmitted disease, and while most cases are harmless, some types of the virus can cause genital warts and cervical and several other kinds of cancer.

Published in the medical journal The Lancet, the new analysis of 65 studies included data from 60 million individuals and up to eight years of post-vaccination followup. It found girls aged 13 to 19 saw an 83 percent decrease in diagnoses of HPV since the vaccine was introduced; women ages 20 to 24 saw a 66 percent decrease in infection rates.

The findings come as the federal Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommended Wednesday that the HPV vaccine be given to both men and women up to age 26; previously recommendations called for men to receive the vaccine up to age 21.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) currently recommends routine vaccination for both males and females at 11-12 years of age, and vaccination can begin at age 9.

“We have always known that [the HPV vaccine] has been effective regardless of a person’s age, but the push to provide it to people [26 years old and younger] is about giving the vaccine before the person is exposed,” said Cherise Rohr-Allegrini, San Antonio program director with the Immunization Partnership, an advocacy organization working to eradicate vaccine-preventable diseases through public policy initiatives.

“The new age recommendations mean that not only can we give the vaccine to this population, but it should also encourage insurance providers to cover the cost for [older age groups]” because the vaccine is approved for people up to age 45, Rohr-Allegrini said?.

HPV is so common that nearly all men and women contract the virus at some point in their lives. The virus is contagious even when an infected person has no symptoms. In most cases, HPV goes away on its own and does not cause any health problems.

Anita Kurian, assistant director for the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District’s communicable disease division, said that Bexar County is doing better than Texas as a whole when it comes to HPV vaccination rates but lags areas such as Houston and El Paso.

In 2017, nearly 63 percent of Bexar County youth ages 13 to 17 were vaccinated against HPV, compared to the nearly 58 percent state average, according to the CDC.

Kurian said a CDC grant provided to Metro Health helped fund local efforts to educate people about the vaccine and allowed the health authority to supply more vaccines to providers participating in the Vaccines for Children program, which provides vaccines to uninsured or underinsured children.

While the benefits of the vaccine are well-documented, obstacles to boosting HPV vaccination rates in the U.S. remain. The CDC found that many parents and health care providers don’t yet see a need to vaccinate boys and young men. Parents also have expressed concerns about the need for the vaccine and its costs, according to the CDC.

“Kids below poverty level are more likely to be vaccinated than those at or above poverty-level,” said Rohr-Allegrini.

Low-income families often take advantage of preventative health measures as a means of controlling future health care costs. More affluent families may utilize vaccines at lower rates “knowing they have the privilege of accessing health care” if they become ill, Rohr-Allegrini said.

Kurian said Bexar County has better rates than those statewide for both starting and completing the vaccine, which has a two-dose recommendation. Seventy-nine percent of cervical cancer diagnoses in Texas from 2011-2015 were attributed to HPV.

“Of these [cancer diagnoses], 92 percent could have been prevented with the HPV vaccine,” Kurian said.

According to the report, the number of adolescents in the U.S. who received at least one dose of the HPV vaccine has increased by 5 percent each year since 2013.

“There is enough scientific evidence available now to prove this vaccine is effective in preventing cancer,” Rohr-Allegrini said. “If we can get to 90 percent coverage with all 12-year-olds, that would be incredible.”

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.