Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Missed Opportunities to Prevent Cervical Cancer: Use of HPV Vaccine Still Low

Photo: Flickr/Melissa Wiese 
To work in the field of cancer prevention one has to be an optimist at heart.  In the science, in the statistics, and in the news, you see not only the broad burden of cancer but also the vast opportunities that exist to lower risk and prevent the disease.

At the same time, we understand that shifting environments, attitudes, and behaviors in positive directions can take years, and most likely decades.  We didn't overnight become a nation where two-thirds of us are overweight/obese and half of us get little or no activity.  So it follows that shifting the pendulum in the other direction won't happen overnight either.  Such issues take daily efforts year after year to address both on a personal level and on a societal level.  There are no magic bullets.

Yet, however optimistic, there are two issues that leave many in the public health and medical professions scratching their heads over: the underuse of two relatively simple medical strategies that have vast potential for preventing cancer.

We've written at length about both of these strategies here in CNiC: the use of medications to prevent breast cancer in those at high risk of the disease (posts), and the use of the HPV vaccine to prevent cervical cancer (posts).

Of these two, the low use of the medications tamoxifen and raloxifene is perhaps the hardest to understand, given the large demonstrated benefits they have in preventing breast cancer in high risk women and the yawning gap between the number of women who likely stand to benefit from taking them (well over 2 million) and the number who actually do take them (just 117,000).

While new data on the HPV vaccine show there's been some progress in its use, the numbers also fall well short of what should be possible based on the use of other standard childhood vaccines. The vaccine is recommended for all girls and boys ages 11 or 12, given in a three dose course.  Its safety has been well-documented. Yet, only 57% of girls and 35% of boys get one or more doses of the vaccine.  Count only those who've received the full three doses, and the numbers fall to 38% for girls and 14% for boys.  Based on the number of children in this age-group cohort who receive other vaccines at their standard health care visits, and these percentages could realistically be as high as 91%.

The primary reasons parents give for not vaccinating their children were similar for both girls and boys, including the vaccine not being recommended by the health care provider, concerns about safety, and lack of knowledge of the vaccine or feeling it wasn't needed.

Both of these cases -  low use of the HPV vaccine and of tamoxifen/raloxifene - demonstrate just how important broad-based efforts at education are. It is not enough to demonstrate cancer prevention benefits - even benefits from activities as relatively simple as getting a vaccine or taking a pill.  Concerns of patients, parents, and health care providers must be appropriately addressed while we also move ahead fostering knowledge of, and demand for, the benefits the vaccine and preventive medications provide.

The trend in HPV vaccination show's we're making some progress on that front.  We have to be happy with that, but as usually, we'll keep striving for more.

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