Since the vaccine for human papillomavirus was released in 2006, the main hurdle to getting more children inoculated has been clear: convincing parents to vaccinate their pre-teen children for a sexually transmitted disease.
Rates of vaccination have not been as high as doctors had hoped, despite the fact that the HPV vaccine is one of only two vaccines that can prevent cancer. That's why the Jewish Healthcare Foundation has recently launched a campaign to draw attention to the importance of the vaccine.
"We care because HPV can cause six kinds of cancer, and it's a simple vaccine," says Laurie Gottlieb, spokesperson for the JHF. "There are about 33,000 HPV-related cancers in the United States every year.
"There's a vaccine that could've prevented these cases, and kids aren't getting it."
HPV, a sexually transmitted infection, can lead to cervical, vulvar and vaginal cancer in women. In men, the virus can cause penile, anal and oropharyngeal cancer. The HPV vaccine is administered in three doses and is recommended for children ages 11 and 12; young women can get vaccinated until age 26, and young men can get vaccinated until age 21.
"When you think of it collectively, cancer is the disease that creates the most fear in people," says Dr. Alan Finkelstein, a member of the JHF's advisory committee. "So the idea that we have a vaccine that can prevent that is kind of the holy grail of medicine."
But according to a 2013 Centers for Disease Control report, fewer than 38 percent of adolescent girls have received the full HPV vaccine. The number is even lower for adolescent boys, at 14 percent.
"The goal of the campaign is to increase uptake," Gottlieb says. "HPV is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections."
A CDC study found that HPV vaccination rates are low for two main reasons: Parents don't know about the vaccine, and not enough physicians are recommending it. But the reasons parents have for not vaccinating their children vary depending on the sex of the child.
For parents of girls, the No. 1 reason was lack of knowledge. Approximately 14 percent of respondents said they were worried about the safety and possible side effects of the vaccine. And 11 percent said their daughters were not sexually active.
"There's a general level of discomfort because we know HPV is transmitted through sexual contact and we get in a position where parents are not willing to consider the sexuality of their 10- or 12-year-old," Finkelstein says. "They may think, 'Something like that couldn't happen to my child.'"
For parents of boys, the top two reasons given for not vaccinating their children were that the vaccine was not recommended and that it was not needed or necessary. Increasing the vaccination rate among boys is a main focus of the JHF campaign.