Since the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine was introduced in 2006, the prevalence of the disease — a precursor to a variety of cancers — has plummeted. Despite being the most prevalent sexually transmitted infection in the United States, it has fallen by an order of magnitude.
But that progress could be in jeopardy at the clinics where vaccination takes place, a new CDC study warns. The culprit? The coronavirus, which has upended nearly all aspects of health care.
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The study looked at challenges to HPV vaccination at family practice and pediatric clinics that serve adolescents. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that most adolescents begin their series before they turn 15.
Researchers knew the vaccination numbers had fallen dramatically during the pandemic — a 2021 study in the journal Vaccine found that vaccination coverage dropped by about 75 percent in April 2020 compared with previous years and warned that if teens didn’t get brought up to date, hundreds of thousands of new cases would result. And even before the pandemic, only 54 percent of adolescents in the United States were up to date on their HPV vaccines.
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Those living in rural areas were less likely to be vaccinated. So researchers interviewed clinicians in Iowa, most in rural areas, about how the pandemic affected HPV vaccination.
In the interviews, the clinicians said there had been fewer opportunities to vaccinate adolescents because of changes to their practice precipitated by the pandemic. Clinic regulars started getting care via telehealth, and the number of patients with covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and those in need of testing cut down on the amount of time the clinicians had for routine vaccinations. Younger patients were often prioritized for care, and patients proved reluctant to go into the clinic because they feared getting the coronavirus.
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Logistics were another hurdle. It became hard to coordinate and implement vaccine clinics, and providers got less education. As priorities shifted, the focus turned away from HPV vaccination because of short staffing and reassignments related to covid-19.
The study reveals a priority shift that could endanger adolescents and young adults who miss out on the vaccine, the researchers write. “Pre-existing low rates of HPV vaccination coupled with the impact of the pandemic threaten to leave adolescents unprotected against HPV and with increased susceptibility to HPV-related cancers,” they say.