Study: Not enough teenagers are immunized against HPV

WASHINGTON — It’s the only vaccine that can prevent cancer, but government statistics show far too many teenagers aren’t immunized against the human papillomavirus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says four out of 10 adolescent girls and six out of 10 boys have not started the recommended HPV series of shots.

That concerns public health officials. Without the vaccine, children are left vulnerable to infections that can cause a number of cancers — including cervical cancer in women.

The latest CDC data is based on a 2014 survey of 13- to 17-year-old boys and girls. It shows a slight uptick in immunized teens, not the significant improvement in immunizations some had hoped for.

But there was good news for D.C., which lead the nation in the percentage of adolescents who reported receiving at least one dose of the vaccine as preteens.

“We are real excited about that,” says Dr. Yolanda Lewis Ragland, a pediatrician with the Children’s National Health System and a member of a D.C. task force reaching out to physicians to encourage them to talk to parents about the importance of the HPV vaccine.

D.C. is doing much better than Maryland or Virginia, where immunization rates hover around the national average.

The vaccine is not mandatory for Maryland teens, and while it is required in D.C. and for girls in Virginia, parents can opt out. Some do, citing concern about side effects or the possibility the vaccine might encourage sexual activity.

Lewis-Ragland  says the vaccine is safe — alone or given in conjunction with other vaccines. As for fears that it will encourage teens to engage in risky behavior, this doctor notes the hepatitis B vaccine routinely given to infants also guards against a disease that can be transmitted sexually.

She acknowledges that parents often ask her if her own kids — ages 16, 13 and 10 — are immunized.

“I’m all in,” says Lewis-Ragland. Her teenage daughter and son have had the complete series of shots.  Her youngest daughter will start them next year.

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