CDC calls on doctors to pitch HPV shots as cancer prevention, not STD protection

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Shot-makers and health organizations have been laboring to boost lagging HPV vaccination rates, and now the CDC is weighing in again: Doctors should talk up the vaccines' ability to prevent deadly cancers, rather than dwelling on STD prevention, as a way to persuade skeptical parents to protect their kids.

Instead of stressing that the vaccines protect against sexually transmitted infections--which may be an uneasy topic given that the vaccines are recommended for preteens--the federal agency is asking healthcare providers to emphasize their cancer-prevention benefits, the Wall Street Journal reports. HPV vaccines are recommended for children aged 11 and 12, often creating uncomfortable conversations that can lead doctors to not give strong recommendations.

That squeamishness is one reason why the shots from Merck & Co. ($MRK) and GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) have suffered in uptake since their introduction. Merck, maker of the big-selling Gardasil franchise, recently launched a TV ad that emphasizes cancer prevention, putting the onus on parents to get their children vaccinated.

The ad shows a young adult man with cancer caused by HPV in a series of pictures with a voiceover questioning why he never received the vaccine.

Apart from the sex stigma, factors hindering uptake for the vaccine class include misinformation, safety concerns and antivaccine campaigns. While a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 2020 initiative has set HPV vaccination goals for both boys and girls at 80%, 2015 CDC numbers show that only 40% of girls and 21% of boys have received the HPV shot.

Now, U.S. authorities are recommending docs talk about HPV vaccines as routine preteen shots. The new CDC message comes amid a national push to increase HPV vaccination rates, an effort that has been endorsed by 69 National Cancer Institute centers and other prominent health organizations.

The U.S. lags other high-income countries such as the U.K. and Australia, which boast HPV vaccination rates of more than 60%. In the U.K., a country that uses a two-dose schedule, 89% of adolescent females received the first dose, while rates for the second dose vary between 60% and 90% depending on the public health authority. Australia reports that 77% of females and 66% of males have received the full schedule.

Even still, U.S. parents don’t have a favorable view of laws that would require the vaccines. According to a study released in August, just 21% of parents would support school-entry HPV vaccine requirements. Nearly one-third of respondents said the vaccines are merely a sales ploy by pharma companies.

Meanwhile, a key CDC panel is weighing new dosing that might make the HPV vaccination easier for patients. The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) will meet Wednesday to review evidence for a two-dose regimen, as opposed to the current three-dose series, and vote whether to recommend a change.

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