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  • Researchers report that the number of adolescents in the United States receiving vaccinations against the human papillomavirus (HPV) is increasing, especially among boys.
  • Experts say this is important because HPV can lead to a variety of cancer in both males and females.
  • Efforts are underway to increase HPV vaccination rates in underserved communities.

The human papillomavirus (HPV) poses a health threat to both males and females.

Despite that, HPV vaccination campaigns initially focused on adolescent girls. That has now changed.

In a new study, researchers are now reporting that vaccination rates among boys are rising rapidly.

Overall, the researchers noted that more than 75 percent of all adolescents in the United States ages 13 to 17 had received at least one dose of the HPV vaccine by 2020. That was up from about 56 percent in 2015.

In 2020, about 59 percent of 13-year-olds to 19-year-olds were fully vaccinated against HPV, compared to roughly 40 percent in 2015, the researchers noted.

Complete protection requires two to three doses of the Gardasil or Cervarix vaccines, depending on the age of the person.

Nearly as many boys as girls have now been vaccinated against HPV, the researchers reported. They noted that 73 percent of males had received at least one dose in 2020, compared to 76 percent of females.

That 3 percent gender gap in HPV vaccination has declined from 13 percent in 2015, according to the study from the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The initial focus for HPV vaccination testing and authorization was for females, based on the clear benefit they experienced in cervical cancer prevention,” said Dr. Mark T. Loafman, a Cook County Health family physician in Chicago who specializes in infectious disease outbreaks, public health, healthcare research and health policy.

“Males were wisely added subsequently… and we have been playing ‘catch up’ for males in terms of education and awareness. This study suggests we are indeed catching up,” he added.

Having a healthcare professional recommend the HPV shot was the single most influential favor in determining whether adolescents got vaccinated, the study found.

More than 80 percent of those who received a doctor’s recommendation were vaccinated, including 79 percent of boys and 81 percent of girls.

Vaccination against HPV — a sexually transmitted disease known to cause cervical cancer, anal cancer, oral cancer, oropharyngeal cancer, and other cancers, as well as genital warts — was first recommended for women and girls under age 26.

In 2009, the vaccine was approved for use by boys and young men as well.

“HPV vaccination is important for boys and girls to prevent cancers that can happen later in life,” Judy Klein, president of the adolescent health group Unity Consortium and a member of the National HPV Roundtable, told Healthline. “HPV infections can cause several types of cancers later in life for men, including cancers of the throat, penis, and anus. As a matter of fact, these HPV cancers are now the most common type, and affect more men than women.”

“Sex with an HPV infected partner is how the virus is transmitted,” added Loafman, “so vaccinating younger males provides the sort of herd immunity we look for to interrupt the spread of infectious disease.”

Studies have also shown that rates of certain cancers known to be related to HPV infections have declined as vaccination rates have risen.

Loafman said that the HPV vaccine’s proven effectiveness in preventing certain types of cancer has helped overcome growing vaccine hesitancy in the United States.

“The appropriate focus on HPV vaccine for cancer prevention is relevant and effective. We think this has really helped HPV vaccine transition to one that is more widely accepted as part of the standard vaccines we administer, and as this happens it is far more readily included among the recommendations we make, and patients and parents accept,” he told Healthline. “Media campaigns focusing on cancer prevention have been very helpful in this regard.”

Populations with below-average rates of HPV vaccination include people of Black, Hispanic, and Native American ethnicity, people lacking health insurance, and those who had fewer healthcare contacts, particularly well-child visits at age 11 or 12.

Loafman, who works as a clinician serving a predominantly Black community in Chicago, said that improving HPV vaccination rates among underserved populations will require overcoming a lack of trust in organized medicine, barriers to accessing care, and increasing the number of Black healthcare providers.

“Media efforts in which trusted representatives from the Black community share health advice are also effective and can have an almost immediate impact, as we have seen with COVID vaccine acceptance,” said Loafman.

“The goal is to maximize opportunities for vaccinating,” said Klein. “Most vaccinations take place during well-child visits. The problem is that annual check-ups decrease as children get older, and annual check-ups decreased during the pandemic.”

“There are proven strategies for increasing well-child and vaccination visits, including healthcare provider offices reaching out and reminding parents that it’s time for the visit [and reminders to providers] to vaccinate during every adolescent encounter, such as sports physicals and acute care visits,” she said.