Just six percent of people at the highest risk for HIV infection are vaccinated against HPV, a new study suggests – putting them in greater danger of contracting either disease and of developing cancer.
HPV, or human papillomavirus, is an extremely common STI that most people never see the effects of.
But some strains can cause cancers of the genitals, head and neck, and HIV weakens the immune system, putting those living with the disease at greater risks for genital, head and neck cancers.
Health officials have adamantly promoted the HPV vaccine for young people, but their efforts may be overlooking adults at the highest risk of infection who can still be protected by the shot, a new Texas A&M survey suggests.
The HPV vaccine (pictured, file) can protect against the cancer-causing virus – but vaccination rates are lowest among those at high risk of HIV, who are most vulnerable, study finds
About 80 percent of sexually active people will contract HPV at some point in their lives.
Much like oral herpes – which the National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimates 90 percent of people are exposed to by age 50 – HPV is so common, and usually innocuous, that a standard STD panel doesn’t even screen for it.
Doctors didn’t really worry about the virus, or tell their patients to be concerned about it, until the last decade.
In 2008, a German scientist was awarded the Nobel Prize for establishing the link between HPV and cervical cancer.
Two years prior – once the scientific community started listening to Dr Harald zur Hausen’s warnings – the Food and Drug Administration approved Gardasil, the vaccine against HPV viruses for nine- to 26-year-old girls and women.
Now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that all boys and girls get a first dose of the vaccine at age 11 or 12, and a second by age 15. For older patients (through 26) the agency advises three doses.
Health officials aim to see 80 percent of the population vaccinated, but currently just under 50 percent of adolescents are estimated to have competed the two-dose regimen (66 percent have started it).
That general population’s rate is lagging somewhat, but vaccination rates for the patients most at-risk for developing an HPV-related cancer remain lowest, the new study, presented at the American Association for Cancer Research annual meeting, suggests.
Men who have sex with men, transgender people and people who use injection drugs are all considered at high risk for HIV.
Because HIV attacks the immune system, it makes people more at risk for contracting other infections – like HPV.
And certain HPV strains cause about five percent of cancers worldwide.
Yet just over a quarter of gay and bisexual males between 18 and 33 have started the HPV shot regimen. Only 6.6 percent of them have completed it.
Just 11 percent of high-risk heterosexual adult women have gotten their first shot, and just a quarter of young, heterosexual adult women have been vaccinated.
Granted, only 416 of the 486,303 men and women Texas A&M researchers surveyed answered all questions needed to fully assess the data, but none of the transgender or non-gender conforming respondents had even gotten their first dose of the shot.
Sorted by race, black survey respondents had the lowest vaccination rates of any group – despite being at the highest risk of HIV of any race.
High risk but under-vaccinated groups face three primary barriers, lead study author Dr Lisa Wigfall, a health education and development professor told Daily Mail Online in an email.
‘I think HPV vaccination rates are low among adults in general because most of the effort has been focused on getting adolescents vaccinated. Unfortunately, many of these adults were not vaccinated as adolescents,’ she said.
Plus, an out-size proportion of high-risk people don’t have insurance.
‘Cost is a major barrier for those who are uninsured. Beyond cost, low knowledge about HPV and lack of provider recommendations about the HPV vaccine are also barriers,’ Dr Wigfall said.
Dr Wigfall and her team by no means discourage the considerable public health efforts to make sure young people get vaccinated, but, they argue, health officials need to cast a wider net.
‘As a first step, we need to continue efforts to increase HPV vaccination among adolescents,’ Dr Wigfall said.
‘However, efforts should also focus on catch-up HPV vaccination among adults, especially those like people living with HIV and men who have sex with men who are at greatest risk of developing HPV-associated cancers such as anal and cervical cancer.’