By Kate Morgan for Blue Cross Blue Shield Association
Published 5:15 AM EST Jan 22, 2019
Most parents know the importance of getting their babies and toddlers vaccinated, but as kids grow up and priorities shift to friends, extracurricular activities and homework, it’s easy for some things – like going to the doctor for a shot – to fall through the cracks.
The Blue Cross Blue Shield Association (BCBSA) found that vaccination rates for American adolescents are fairly high – and rising – but there is still room for improvement. The study focused on three vaccines that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends children receive between the ages of 10 and 13: meningococcal and tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis (Tdap), and human papillomavirus (HPV).
Between 2013 and 2016, the meningococcal vaccination rate increased from 66% to 78%. The Tdap vaccination rate was even higher, growing from 78% to 84%. These numbers make experts optimistic, including Dr. Trent Haywood, chief medical officer of the BCBSA. These rates are approaching the level necessary for “herd immunity,” the point at which enough of the population has been vaccinated to stem the spread of a disease.
The numbers tell a different story, however, when it comes to the vaccine for HPV, the most common sexually transmitted infection. According to the CDC, 79 million Americans, most in their late teens and early 20s, are carriers of HPV. The virus can lead to cervical and other cancers. The first HPV vaccine, Gardasil, was introduced in 2006.
Between 2013 and 2016, the BCBSA study found, on average, only 29% of 11- and 12-year-olds received the first of the then-recommended three doses of HPV vaccine (the CDC now recommends two doses), and that only 8% of boys and 10% of girls completed their third dose during the study period.
While the rate of those beginning their HPV vaccinations during the study period did increase – from 22% in 2013 to 34% in 2016, Haywood said the number is not nearly as high as the medical community would like to see.
“It’s not necessarily as culturally widespread as some of the other vaccines,” Haywood explained. “For many parents, the HPV vaccine wasn’t available to them as children.”
He also acknowledged that for some parents, vaccinating their adolescents against a sexually transmitted infection can be a touchy subject.
“We know it can be multi-faceted,” Haywood said. “Some parents might be concerned that [getting the vaccine] somehow suggests or supports early sexual activity. But that’s just not true. It’s not about whether that child is sexually active; it’s about lifelong immunity.”
Perhaps as worrisome as the low rates of HPV vaccination is the gender gap BCBSA found in its analysis. Rates for Tdap and meningococcal vaccination were nearly identical between boys and girls, while 37% of girls and only 32% of boys completed their first dose of HPV vaccine in 2016.
Haywood said many teens and their parents may be under the impression that the HPV vaccine is strictly for girls, particularly because the risk of death from cancers related to HPV is 60% higher for women than for men.
“As soon as people hear this is meant to prevent cervical cancer, they assume that means it’s their daughters who need to be protected. They’re not thinking about their sons as carriers of HPV,” Haywood said. “We need to push the education, and make it known to take your daughters and your sons. Parents of boys need to make sure they’re doing their part to reduce the spread of cervical cancer, too.”
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