SALT LAKE CITY — New federal data indicates the proportion of Utah teenagers protected by a cancer prevention HPV vaccine increased by about 7 percentage points in 2017, but the state still ranks near the bottom nationwide.
The increase was significant for Utah boys ages 13 to 17, whose estimated HPV coverage rate jumped to 32.9 percent in 2017 compared to 20.3 percent the year before, a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.
However, in the same time frame, the coverage rate stayed roughly the same for girls in the state, with an estimated 42.1 percent of them covered compared to 41.3 percent previously, per the report.
Overall, the proportion of Utah teenagers 13 to 17 covered fully by the two-shot HPV vaccine increased from 30.5 percent in 2016 to 37.4 percent in 2017.
But that rate, compared to other states, ranks 47th in the country and is well below the national average of 48.6 percent, said Shannon Rice, the HPV outreach and education coordinator for the state Department of Health's immunization program.
The findings are based on the CDC's National Immunization Surveys, comprising of a series of questionnaires.
HPV, short for human papillomavirus, is actually a collection of over 150 related viruses, the CDC says. HPV is transmitted sexually.
More than 90 percent of people will have some type of HPV during their lifetime, Rice said, many of whom will exhibit only mild or negligible symptoms — or even no symptoms at all.
However, a few versions of HPV can lead to six types of cancers affecting either the throat, cervix or genitals. There are more than 29,000 cases of HPV-related cancer each year in the United States, the Utah Department of Health says.
The HPV vaccine, which prevents infection with the types of HPV that can lead to cancer, first became available in the United States in 2006. So far, there have "been no studies showing any waning immunity" for the early recipients of the vaccine, Rice said.
Still, she said, the vaccine, which is recommended by the state but not required, has had a hard time catching on in Utah.
"We do have parents who think getting the vaccine might give license for kids to go ahead and have sex," Rice said. "We have studies out there showing that's not the case."
She said such research has shown no increase in sexual activity, pregnancies or sexually transmitted disease among teenagers who have received the vaccine.
While the vaccine is approved for anyone from ages 9 to 26, it is "recommended for preteens, both males and females, at age 11 or 12, so they are protected before ever being exposed to the virus," the Department of Health said in a release.
"We want to vaccinate sooner rather than later," Rice said. "The older you get, the less responsive (the body) is to this HPV vaccine. And, of course, if you have already been exposed the vaccine can't be as effective."
Despite Utah's low prevalence of HPV vaccine coverage, the state has been incrementally improving its rates, "every year at least a little bit," Rice said.
"I mean we had, nowhere to go but up. … Utah adolescents are having trouble accessing this vaccine, I mean the numbers show that," she said.
Rice hypothesized that the vaccine's lower prevalence among Utah teenage boys may be due to the fact that it has been available to them for fewer years than it has been for girls. Efforts to administer it to more boys has been a process of "trying to play catch up," she said.
The CDC awarded a grant four years ago to some states with low HPV prevention coverage rates to help with messaging campaigns promoting the use of the vaccine, Rice said.
Currently, that campaign is focused on a social media presence, as well as advertisements on traditional radio and platforms such as Pandora, she said, teaching people that the vaccine exists in the first place.
"Our message is, it's cancer prevention," Rice said.
Other outreach efforts from state health leaders have included educating physicians on how to better teach their patients about the vaccine, Rice said. She said she is also hopeful more Utahns will learn that most health insurance carriers provide coverage for the vaccine.