Hoping to increase vaccination rates in Texas for the human papillomavirus, or HPV, a group of health professionals on Tuesday announced the launch of a new education effort.
Ninety percent of HPV cases go away on their own within two years, according the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but some forms of HPV can cause cervical and other types of cancer. Experts say getting the vaccine is a way to tamp down chances of getting one of those cancers. Each year, about 31,500 men and women in the U.S. are diagnosed with a cancer caused by HPV. There is no treatment for HPV infection, but vaccination and screening can prevent most HPV-related cancers.
But in Texas, where battles over vaccination have been politically charged, only 33 percent of children aged 13 to 17 have been vaccinated for HPV — leaving the state ranked 47th among states for HPV vaccination rates.
“The HPV vaccine is cancer prevention,” said Greg Parkington, senior manager for state health systems for the American Cancer Society. “Texas represents the single largest opportunity in the country to raise HPV vaccine rates and help protect children against six types of cancer. The vaccine is safe and highly effective. If all 11- and 12-year-olds were vaccinated, an estimated 90 percent of HPV cancers could be prevented, amounting to more than 29,000 fewer cancers per year. Today we are saying Texas can do better to save lives and protect more people from HPV-related cancers.”
Vaccine opponents have said they will thwart any proposed mandate at the Legislature. Through legislative action in 2007 they successfully stymied a mandate by then-Gov. Rick Perry, shortly after the HPV vaccine was approved.
Some parents said the order violated their rights even though the Perry mandate allowed parents to opt out. Others worried that girls who got the vaccine would be more likely to be promiscuous.
“Those were ugly hearings,” said Dr. David Lakey, vice chancellor for health affairs and chief medical officer at the University of Texas System, who is among those encouraging more widespread use of the vaccine. He said the rollout of the vaccine in Texas “had a bad start,” one fighting against misinformation.
“Physicians had angry parents come in saying, ‘Why are you giving my daughter that STD disease?’” he said.
As the legislative debate raged in 2007, news broke that the injection was being pushed by a company whose lobbying team included a former Perry aide.
Then-U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, called the issue an example of “cronyism in Austin” during her unsuccessful primary challenge in the 2010 governor’s race.
“Why did the governor mandate vaccines for our young daughters?” Hutchison said in one speech. “It was because there were lobbyists that were first, not the people of Texas.”
In 2011, as he launched his first presidential bid, Perry called his vaccination order “a mistake.”
The vaccine is mandated in Virginia, Rhode Island and the District of Columbia, according to officials with the Texas HPV Coalition.
Cam Scott, senior director of Texas government relations for the Cancer Action Network, the political arm of the American Cancer Society, said his group would not push for a legislative mandate for the vaccine in Texas “because of political reality.”
Instead, members of the HPV coalition on Tuesday said they were hoping to educate physicians and parents to encourage the use of the vaccine.
“This is something we should be taking the lead on and saving lives,” said Jaime Wesolowski, president and CEO of Methodist Healthcare. He said doctors had said his own throat cancer was likely linked to his own HPV infection.
“I’m asking parents out there with little children, educate yourself, learn about the HPV vaccination, and I suggest you have a duty to make sure your child is vaccinated,” he said.
He said he hoped lawmakers would require physicians to distribute education material to parents about the HPV vaccine.
Dr. Kimberly Avila Edwards, a pediatrician with the Austin Regional Clinic, said doctors and nurses should offer the vaccination with the same kind of standard messaging as they do other vaccines that kids receive during well-child checks.
Coalition officials said there is some evidence that having key pediatricians promote the vaccine improves rates — in El Paso, for example, where pediatricians have championed its use, vaccination rates are in the 60s. But in the Dallas area, rates are only in the 20s.
Vaccination rates in the Austin metro area were 34.5 percent in 2016, according to data assembled by BlueCross BlueShield.
Public health officials estimate as many as 280,000 Travis County residents are infected with HPV, leading to about a hundred cancer cases a year.
“HPV vaccination is the best prevention strategy,” said Dr. Philip Huang, medical director of Austin Public Health. “We work with physicians to encourage them to provide this vaccine in the same way and on the same day as all adolescent vaccines. We also need parents to partner in this effort.
Austin Public Health provides immunizations to children who are uninsured or Medicaid recipients.
The coalition’s aim is to increase vaccination rates to 80 percent by 2026, the 20th anniversary of the vaccine’s approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The coalition includes more than 40 organizations across Texas, including the American Cancer Society, Texas Medical Association, UT System, Texas Pediatric Society and MD Anderson Cancer Center.
The CDC recommends that 11- to 12-year-olds receive two doses of HPV vaccine at least six months apart to protect against cancers caused by HPV infections. Teens and young adults who start the series later, at ages 15 through 26 years, will need three doses of HPV vaccine to protect against cancer-causing HPV infection. For more information on HPV, visit www.cdc.gov/hpv.