Only about one-third of Americans who might benefit from the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine get the shot, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
While measles and HPV are vastly different diseases, failing to get vaccinated against them can have equally serious consequences, researchers warn.
“HPV vaccine is highly safe and highly effective, yet vaccination rates in the US are embarrassingly low,” says Bradley Stoner, associate professor of sociocultural anthropology and associate professor of infectious diseases at Washington University in St. Louis.
Boys and girls
“Other countries have done a much better job of ensuring vaccination of the target population—adolescents and young adults.”
Human papillomavirus is the most common sexually transmitted virus in the United States, according to the CDC.
This suggests that a large majority of sexually active people will acquire HPV at some point in their lives. The CDC recommends the HPV vaccine for boys and girls at ages 12 and 13 so that they can develop an immune response to the virus before becoming sexually active.
While HPV infections may disappear on their own within a couple years, having the virus increases the risk of developing deadly cervical, penile, and anal cancers.
Part of the reason the United States hasn’t done well with the HPV vaccine is public financing, Stoner says.
In Australia, which has been offering free HPV vaccines to children and young adults since 2007, nearly 80 percent of the target population has received the vaccination.
“From a public health perspective, I think it’s also very important to explore the cultural beliefs and values within American groups and sub-populations that have served to limit the success of vaccination campaigns, Stoner says.
So why don’t more Americans get themselves and their children vaccinated? Stoner offers some ideas:
- Mistrust of the vaccine itself and concern that it may cause autism or other harmful conditions.
- Mistrust of the medical profession and/or government recommendations about vaccination (the belief that kids are getting too many shots, for no good reason).
- Religious objections to the vaccine among some religious groups.
- Belief that getting the HPV vaccine will cause kids to become more sexually active.
“Instead of being so quick to castigate non-vaccinators, we as a society would be better served by exploring the belief systems that are driving this behavior,” Stoner says.
“Learning more about the cultural barriers to vaccine acceptance can inform public health officials in their quest to develop culturally-sensitive approaches to encourage vaccine uptake.”