January marks the national observance of Cervical Health Awareness Month, which is a time to highlight issues related to cervical cancer and human papillomavirus (HPV). In the U.S., we have a major opportunity to join the World Health Organization’s call to eliminate cervical cancer by 2030. We can eliminate cervical cancer through HPV vaccination, cervical cancer screening, and timely and effective treatment for pre-cancerous and cancerous cases. HPV vaccination has many other benefits in addition to preventing cervical cancer.

HPV is a very common sexually transmitted infection. Nearly all sexually active men and women get the virus at some point in their lives. HPV causes six types of cancer (cervical, vaginal, vulvar, penile, anal and oropharyngeal), recurrent respiratory papillomatosis and genital warts. In addition, HPV causes pre-cancerous conditions. Current data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that nearly 80 million Americans are currently infected with HPV, while roughly 14 million new cases occur each year. About 45,300 HPV-associated cancers occur each year in the U.S. with about 1 million cases of genital warts. It is estimated about 200,000 women each year will be treated for pre-cancers of the cervix alone.

Routine vaccination at age 11 or 12 has been recommended by the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) since 2006 for females and since 2011 for males.

Age Recommendation Timing
9-14 years Two doses Second dose given 6-12 months after the first dose
15-26 years Three doses Second dose 1-2 months after first, Third dose 6 months after first dose
27-45 years Shared clinical decision making with a healthcare provider  

Notes: Recommendations are current as of 1/8/2021. Three doses are recommended for immunocompromised people (including those with HIV infection) aged 9 through 26.

A safe, effective, and durable vaccine against six types of cancer caused by HPV exists and is recommended; however, uptake of HPV vaccination in the U.S. has been slow. Currently, 54% of adolescents aged 13-17 are up-to-date (i.e. have received all recommended doses) on HPV vaccination. But there are significant differences among adolescents living in rural areas of the U.S. (10% lower on average) and in some regions of the country (rates are 24% lower in Mississippi as one example). This is concerning because the highest rates of HPV-associated diseases exist in areas with the lowest uptake of HPV vaccination.

It is the last sentence – low vaccine uptake, high disease – that pushed me to accept a new role as director of the HPV Cancer Prevention Program at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. I have studied HPV for more than 20 years, and I have seen over the last 15 years how HPV vaccination has saved lives.

In my new role, our program team will work with a range of partners across the region and U.S. to realize the benefits of HPV vaccination for cancer prevention. As the only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center dedicated solely to children, St. Jude has an important role and responsibility in increasing the number of children who benefit from HPV vaccination and reduce their risk of preventable cancers as adults. The goal of the HPV Cancer Prevention Program is to reduce HPV-associated cancer deaths locally and nationally through this new St. Jude initiative by driving up HPV vaccination rates.

We will work with partners to galvanize existing efforts and lead new ones to implement what has been shown to work to increase HPV vaccination. We will focus on addressing disparities in HPV vaccination among populations we serve. This work also will include reversing pandemic-related trends resulting in low HPV vaccination rates in 2020. We have made progress, but we also have a tremendous opportunity to improve HPV vaccination and prevent HPV cancers in even more people.

More than 270 million doses of HPV vaccination have been given worldwide, to date. HPV vaccination is cancer prevention. HPV vaccination is safe, effective and lasting. I look forward to sharing a different story in the future as a result of the St. Jude collaborative efforts to increase HPV vaccination to prevent cancer.