North Dakota could eradicate cervical cancer thanks to high HPV vaccination rates, health department says

Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is the most common type of sexually transmitted infection in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many people who contract the virus experience no symptoms and the infection goes away on its own. For others, HPV can develop into cervical, penile, anal, or other cancers.

If North Dakota, which had the second-highest rate of HPV vaccinations in the U.S. in 2019, continues to promote the HPV vaccine and regular cancer screenings, it could one day eradicate cervical cancer in the state, said state immunization manager Molly Howell.

“We have the potential, through vaccination and also preventive screenings, to completely eliminate cancer, and that’s really exciting,” Howell said.

More than 90% of cervical and anal cancers are caused by HPV, the CDC says. According to the American Cancer Society, an estimated 4,300 women nationwide will die from cervical cancer by 2021.

The North Dakota Department of Health recommends that young people get the HPV vaccine before they turn 13 so that it is most effective. The vaccine is administered in series, with adolescents under 15 years of age receiving the recommended two doses and teens over 15 years of age three.

In 2019, nearly 90% of adolescents ages 13 to 17 in North Dakota began the HPV vaccine series, and 77% of adolescents in the same age group completed the series, according to the CDC. In contrast, the U.S.-wide vaccination rate in the same year for teens starting the series was 72%, and only 54% of teens nationwide completed the series.

The Department of Health owes its high HPV vaccination rate to primary care providers who encourage parents to have their children vaccinated to prevent cancer.

“Our health care providers are very fond of this vaccine and its safety and effectiveness, and so they have a really strong recommendation that parents vaccinate their adolescent against HPV,” Howell said.

Many North Dakota youth get the HPV vaccine when they get their required immunizations before entering seventh and 11th grade or during their annual high school physical, Howell said.

The HPV vaccine is not required in most states, including North Dakota, but according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least three states, Washington DC and Puerto Rico, require the vaccine for students to attend school.

The vaccine is not associated with increased sexual activity in adolescents who receive it, according to a study led by the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, published in the journal Pediatrics.

Howell said HPV vaccination rates remained stable during the COVID-19 pandemic, although fewer people opted for routine checkups.

The pandemic has recently been at the forefront of the Department of Health’s coverage and outreach efforts, but it hopes in the near future to put additional focus on eradicating cervical cancer and promoting HPV vaccinations, Howell said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Michelle Griffith, a member of the US Corps, at mgriffith@forumcomm.com.

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