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CDC data shows the HPV vaccine is not reaching many young people


Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is a very common virus. It's usually spread through sexual activity and can cause cancers later in life. A 20-year-old vaccine has been really good at preventing those cancers, but data from the centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that the HPV vaccine isn't reaching as many young people. NPR's Pien Huang has more.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: The HPV vaccine is a series of shots recommended for most children around ages 11 or 12. The U.S. government has a goal of getting 80% of adolescents fully vaccinated by the year 2030. How is that going? Here's Maria Villarroel, a statistician with CDC.

MARIA VILLARROEL: I think it's slowly increasing. It's getting there, but it's - we're not quite there yet.

HUANG: Not quite there is optimistic. The latest numbers from CDC show that in 2022, just 63% of teens had all their HPV shots. That's far below the 80% target. The numbers also showed a worrying trend. For the first time in about a decade, the rate of teens starting their HPV series actually fell a little bit. Noel Brewer is a researcher of health behavior at University of North Carolina. He says a lot of routine vaccinations fell behind around that time.

NOEL BREWER: What happened is that well visits dropped significantly during the pandemic, and well visits are when vaccination happens.

HUANG: But the data show that HPV vaccines may not be recovering as quickly as other childhood vaccines. They also show some troubling signs in what had been considered something of a health equity success story. For many years, CDC data showed that HPV vaccine coverage was higher for Black and Hispanic children than it was for white children and higher for kids on Medicaid than those on private insurance. Now the coverage rate for kids on Medicaid is starting to slip. And there's another, more perennial problem with HPV vaccine coverage. It's not required for school in most states. And because it's for a sexually transmitted virus, it makes many parents uncomfortable or squeamish about making sure their child gets it. Doctor LaKeshia Craig practices adolescent medicine at Medical University of South Carolina.

LAKESHIA CRAIG: Parents will say, well, my child's not sexually active. And parents have this incorrect assumption that if you protect their children from HPV, that they will be more inclined to have sex at earlier ages.

HUANG: The vaccine protects those who get it well into adulthood, and with high coverage rates, it could wipe out some pretty serious cancers such as cervical cancer, throat and mouth cancers that affect both women and men. So some are saying maybe skip the sex part of the messaging and say instead, get the shot now to prevent cancer later.

Pien Huang, NPR News.

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Pien Huang
Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.