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Study Finds HPV Vaccine Has Lowered Number Of Women With Disease


A vaccine has dramatically cut the number of young women with HPV, a sexually transmitted disease that can lead to cancer. Since the vaccine was introduced a decade ago, rates among teens have dropped 64 percent. That's according to a study in this week's Pediatrics. But many of those eligible to get the vaccine are either not getting the full series of shots or not getting any at all. Joining us to talk about this dilemma is Dr. Joseph Bocchini. He's an infectious disease specialist in Shreveport, La., who has advised the CDC on the disease. Welcome to the program.

JOSEPH BOCCHINI: Thank you very much.

CORNISH: Now, are these results as dramatic as they sound - a drop in 64 percent among teens?

BOCCHINI: These are very dramatic results, especially with what you mentioned at the outset. With so few individuals receiving this vaccine as recommended, to see this much of a drop is - in 14- to 19-year-old girls - is really dramatic and really indicates how effective this vaccine is in preventing infection with the four types of HPV that are included in the vaccine.

CORNISH: You know, we've reported in the past about reluctance from parents, maybe, who don't want to encourage their daughters to get this vaccine, maybe don't want to talk about it because it involves a sexually transmitted disease and doctors, maybe general practitioners, who haven't been aggressive about putting it out there. Is there a chance that this new research can help change that conversation?

BOCCHINI: I hope so because I think that you're absolutely right. The data that's available indicates that some providers - some physicians and other vaccinators - are not making a strong recommendation for HPV vaccine or considering it sort of as an option at 11 to 12 rather than making a strong recommendation. That's not the correct approach because we know that for any vaccine-preventable disease, the best time to get the vaccine is before a person is exposed. And we have a great opportunity at age 11 to 12 to vaccinate all boys and girls against a group of viruses that are important causes of cancer.

CORNISH: It sounds like that you're almost recommending a way to talk about it as well. Like, if people don't want to talk about the sex part of sexually transmitted disease, you want to focus on the potential - the cancer risk.

BOCCHINI: Correct. Sexually transmitted disease does not need to be part of the conversation. The conversation should be that we have a vaccine that could prevent cancer. You have an opportunity to prevent approximately 90 percent of cancers that are associated with the human papillomavirus. In general, we don't talk about how patients acquire the diseases that we want to prevent with vaccines. There's no reason to do that routinely for HPV.

CORNISH: Vaccine is also recommended for boys who can get and transmit the disease. And they weren't part of this study. What's known about the rate of vaccination among them?

BOCCHINI: Well, unfortunately, the rate of vaccination for boys is even lower than it is for girl. Only about 35 percent have received a single dose, and about a third of those complete the series. So we have a long way to go to try and improve immunization rates for both boys and girls. There are over 9,000 cases of HPV-associated cancer in males each year in the United States. Many of those cases are cancers of the mouth and throat. So it is very likely that we could see a significant drop in cases of cancer of the mouth and throat in both men and women with the use of HPV vaccines.

CORNISH: Right now, the vaccine is mandatory in Virginia, Rhode Island and the District of Columbia. Do you think that it should be mandatory in all states?

BOCCHINI: Well, I think that is one way that we can significantly improve immunization rates, but I think at the present time, we need to focus on making parents more aware of the role of HPV in the development of a variety of different cancers. I think we can then start talking about whether mandates are needed to try and improve the uptake of the vaccine.

CORNISH: That's Dr. Joseph Bocchini. He's a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Louisiana State University in Shreveport. Dr. Bocchini, thank you so much for speaking with us.

BOCCHINI: Thank you very much. I enjoyed the opportunity. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.