HPV vaccination rates ticking upward, CDC says as it urges more uptake

Efforts to boost the national HPV vaccination rate are yielding some positive results, new data from the CDC show. Nationwide, 60% of teens ages 13 to 17 received at least one dose of the shot last year, a 4% increase from 2015, while the vaccination gap between girls and boys continues to narrow.

Sixty-five percent of girls and 56% of boys received at least one dose of the HPV shot last year, according to the CDC. However, only 43% of teens completed the schedule. The agency maintains more work needs to be done to further boost HPV vaccination rates. Rates lagged in rural areas as well, according to the CDC.

"I'm pleased with the progress, but too many teens are still not receiving the HPV vaccine—which leaves them vulnerable to cancers caused by HPV infection," new CDC director Brenda Fitzgerald said in a statement. She added that health officials “need to do more to increase the vaccination rate and protect American youth today from future cancers tomorrow."

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In an effort to boost rates, the CDC last year changed the HPV vaccination schedule from three doses to two for children 15 and under. Teens and young adults older than 15 still need three shots.

Following GlaxoSmithKline’s decision last year to remove Cervarix from the U.S. market due to “very low” demand, Merck’s Gardasil is now the only HPV shot available in the U.S.

Merck has taken its own efforts to boost the vaccination rate, for example by introducing an ad that puts the onus on parents to get their children vaccinated.

RELATED: GSK exits U.S. market with its HPV vaccine Cervarix

Other efforts to boost HPV vaccination rates include the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s recommendations and a letter last year from the National Cancer Insitute's Cancer Centers urging more vaccination.

For Merck, the lone position in the key U.S. market has been providing a financial boost as Gardasil continues to propel growth for the drugmaker’s vaccines unit. In the company’s most recent earnings announcement, Merck reported $469 million in sales for the vaccine, beating analyst expectations by $39 million. Last year, the shot brought in $2.17 billion, a 14% leap over the prior year. It’s Merck’s top vaccine and ranks among the pharma giant’s top sellers overall.

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Still, sales for the vaccine class are far short of some early lofty expectations of $4 billion to $10 billion. Uptake for the class has been limited by a sex stigma, safety concerns and doctors’ reluctance to give the vaccines a strong recommendation.

With the CDC’s decision last fall to switch to a two-dose HPV vaccine schedule, Merck warned sales could take a hit. Now, the company is “starting to see some impact” from that transition, executive vice president Adam Schechter said Merck’s most recent conference call.