Amid parents’ concern for their daughters over the timing and safety of vaccination shots against human papillomavirus (HPV), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) have released a statement saying the vaccine is “safe, effective and grossly underutilized.”

At a recent press conference, data from the CDC revealed that vaccination rates in girls aged between 13-17 years declined between 2011 and 2012. The current level of HPV vaccine coverage is 33% – falling far short of the 80% coverage target set by the Healthy People 2020 initiative from the US Department of Health and Human Services.

Dr. Tom Frieden, director of CDC says:

Progress increasing HPV vaccination has stalled, risking the health of the next generation. Doctors need to step up their efforts by talking to parents about the importance of HPV vaccine, just as they do other vaccines, and ensure its given at every opportunity.”

There are 70 million Americans currently infected with HPV, according to the CDC, with 14 million people becoming newly infected every year.

The public health body says that if the levels of HPV vaccine uptake stay as they are – with 33% coverage instead of the 2020 initiative’s 80% – an additional 4,400 women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer, producing 1,400 extra deaths from the disease.

HPV is a common sexually transmitted virus. Infection with HPV can lead to abnormal tissue growth and changes to cells in the cervix, which can lead to cervical cancer. It is also known to be a cause of genital warts.

Medical News Today recently reported that HPV is linked to a third of throat cancers. Researchers from Cancer Research UK and the University of Oxford found that HPV16 is linked to oropharyngeal cancer.

The HPV vaccine was introduced in the US in 2006. There are two options available – the bivalent vaccine (Cervarix) and the quadrivalent vaccine (Gardasil). The immunizations are given in three shots over a six-month period.

The HPV vaccination can be given to girls from 9 years of age, but is recommended between 11 and 12 years of age. It is also recommended for girls and women aged between 13 and 26 who have not already been properly vaccinated having missed all or some of the immunisation shots.

Data from a CDC national immunization survey (NIS-Teen) reveals that parents feel there are gaps in knowledge about the vaccine, specifically a lack of understanding on why it is recommended at such an early age.

Dr. Frieden says:

Parents need reassurance that HPV vaccine is recommended at 11 or 12 because it should be given well in advance of any sexual activity. We don’t wait for exposure to occur before we vaccinate with any other routinely recommended vaccine.”

From the NIS-Teen data, parents also reported that safety concerns were one of the reasons they were reluctant to agree to their daughters receiving the HPV vaccine.

When the vaccination was first introduced, there was a media frenzy surrounding some reports of side effects associated with the vaccination, with some parents saying their daughters had experienced serious blackouts, chronic fatigue and even partial paralysis.

However, the CDC says that no serious safety concerns have been identified in direct relation to the use of the vaccine over the seven years since it was first licenced.

The CDC adds that reports of adverse events, which must be sent in to the regulators with any new drug or vaccine, have fallen steadily between 2008 and 2012. The proportion of adverse events reported as serious has also declined – from 12.7% in 2009 to 7.8% in 2012.

Parents and caregivers are encouraged to ask about vaccination every time they take children for a healthcare visit. The CDC also says healthcare officials should be firmer and more consistent with parents in recommending the HPV vaccine, particularly for the benefit of 11- and 12-year-olds.

The HPV vaccine is covered under the Affordable Care Act, meaning that the majority of private healthcare insurers must cover the vaccine at a reasonable price. The CDC say this should encourage parents to ensure their daughters receive the HPV vaccine.