A recent New York Times article reports that the HPV vaccine has sharply reduced the virus’s prevalence among teenage girls, but vaccination rates continue to be low. The HPV vaccine provides immunity against a sexually transmitted virus that can cause cervical and other types of cancer in both men and women. Nationally, about 40% of girls and 20% of boys between the ages of 13 and 17 receive the vaccination. Recently, I met with Group Health and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center to discuss what we might be able to do to improve the take up rate. It is important to note that even with low vaccination rates, cases of HPV have fallen by two-thirds in teenage girls and by over a third in women in their early 20s. If we can increase immunization rates, we could see those rates fall even further.
There are a few ways that the legislature could take action on this issue. We could direct the Department of Health to report the rates at which young people in specific age ranges are completing the HPV series, which is administered in three doses. This would give us an idea more specifically what HPV vaccine utilization looks like in our state, and it’s what I proposed in SB 6562. We could also do more to promote the vaccine, increase its availability by allowing the second and third doses to be given in school settings, and to educate parents, youth, and health care providers. Another option is to follow the example of Virginia, Rhode Island, and the District of Columbia, and add the HPV vaccine to the list of required immunizations for enrollment in school, with the same exemptions that apply to other vaccinations. That is a big step, however, and I do think the first thing we need to do is get a handle on what the precise situation is here in Washington.
27,000 people per year are diagnosed with cancer caused by HPV, yet we have an extremely effective vaccine to prevent the virus. We should be seeing far fewer of these cases, and with further vaccinations, I am hopeful that we will see that number drop in Washington and around the country.