One of the biggest obstacles in getting young men and women vaccinated against HPV, which can cause cervical cancer, is not uptight parents, but doctors who don’t recommend the vaccine strongly enough. Doctors hesitate to recommend the vaccine except to patients they consider to be “at-risk” for contracting HPV. The vaccine has proven to be effective, but the largest problem appears to be that doctors are uncomfortable talking about sex.
Though the Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the vaccine for all people between ages 11 and 12, a survey conducted by assistant professor of population medicine at Harvard Medical School Melissa Gilkey found that of the 1,000 doctors surveyed, more than a quarter of them said they did not strongly endorse the HPV vaccine.
“These findings add to a growing literature that suggests that some providers find the interpersonal environment to be challenging when it comes to talking about HPV vaccination. Discomfort talking about sex appears to be a more salient factor,” says Gilkey.
Currently, only about 38% of teenage girls and 14% of boys receive all three doses of the vaccine, while other vaccines are at an 80 or 90% rate of use. The vaccine has been proven to be safe and effective, though it has not been out long enough for us to know fully how much cancer it can prevent.
Nearly all sexually active Americans will contract HPV at some point, and that means it’s all the more necessary to get young people vaccinated before they become sexually active. Doctors need to be more open about endorsing the vaccine via good and clear communication—even if the conversation is uncomfortable, the vaccine could prevent unnecessary deaths.
One way to improve communication between families and doctors is to “make the vaccine not about sex but about routine cancer prevention,” suggests Jennifer Edman, assistant professor of women’s primary care at Oregon Health and Science University. One of the biggest problems is how doctors perceive the reactions of patients’ parents—they do not believe parents want their children to have the vaccine, as they may worry about promiscuity.
But the conversation about the HPV vaccine needs to change, and soon. The more young people left unprotected means that there will be more health problems down the road, and that’s a price we can’t afford to pay.