Imagine if there was a vaccine that could prevent cancer. Everyone would want it, right?
Surprisingly, no. There IS a vaccine to prevent cervical cancer, which affects about 12,000 women every year, according to the CDC. Unlike most cancers, cervical cancer is caused by a sexually transmitted virus, Human Papillomavirus, also known as HPV. The virus can cause abnormal cell growth in the cervix, which can turn cancerous. The vaccine, approved in 2006, works against many common strains of HPV.
The vaccine is recommended for girls ages 11-12, and also provided to women up through their early twenties. The goal is to protect girls long before they are ever sexually active, so that they never contract HPV in the first place. As of 2011, the vaccine is also recommended for adolescent boys.
HPV is so common that more than half of all sexually active men and women in the United States will be infected with HPV at some point in their lives. According to a CDC factsheet on the HPV vaccine, “about 20 million Americans are currently affected, and 6 million more are infected every year.” In most people, HPV infections never lead to symptoms, but it can cause development of cancer of the cervix, and, more rarely, cancer of the vagina and anus, as well as genital warts. Men can also develop cancer from HPV. The virus is transmitted through skin to skin contact, so condoms are not nearly as effective at preventing the spread of this disease, as they are for many other STDs.
However, only 33.9% of American girls, ages 13-17, reported to the CDC in 2010 that they had been fully vaccinated against HPV. Full coverage requires 3 doses. When I mapped the state by state rates of vaccination, I found an dramatic distribution, from only 19% of girls in Idaho to nearly 60% in South Dakota and Rhode Island.
Much of the resistance to vaccinating adolescent girls against cancer-causing HPV comes many people who are uncomfortable with or resistant to the fact that adolescent girls will grow up to have sex. I expected to see a strong correlation between states with Abstinence-only sex education and low vaccination rates, but the pattern in the map is weaker than I had anticipated. I also considered that the cost of the vaccines might play a role, although if they are not covered by a family’s health insurance, there are federal programs in place to subsidize the cost. There’s also some correlation there, but again, not as strong as you see, for example, when mapping teenage birthrates.
Clearly, this pink map, lovely as it is, does not provide an answer for why more adolescent girls are not receiving the HPV vaccine. There is an unfortunate anti-vaccination movement in this country, with people choosing not to protect their kids from dangerous diseases because of unfounded fears that vaccines can cause autism, among other things. Last fall, Michelle Bachmann even used a presidential debate to stir up more fears that the HPV vaccines could cause mental disabilities, a enormous error that the medical community quickly tried to correct.
The truth is that these vaccines are safe. The truth is that HPV is really common, and it can cause cancer, and if you ever have sex, you have a good chance of getting it. Why aren’t more parents of adolescents taking the lead on protecting their kids’ future health? If you have any ideas for other factors that might explain the patterns of vaccination, let me know in the comments and I will try adding to my map. Thanks!