HPV, or human papillomavirus, is the most common STI — according to Planned Parenthood, almost everyone catches one of the several hundred strains of the virus at some point in their sexually active lives. It’s also the only STI that we currently have a vaccine (call Gardasil) to prevent, which, considering HPV can cause cervical cancer, is a good thing.
But even with knowing all that doctors know about the importance of preventing HPV and cervical cancer, it still looks like teens in the U.S. are failing to successfully complete all three rounds of the vaccine. According to the newest data from the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, only 43 percent of teens are getting all three vaccines that doctors recommend for preventing HPV.
The good news is that the number of teens starting the vaccine round has been gradually increasing over the past few years. The Infectious Disease Adviser reports that most teens have gotten at least the first vaccine. “We’re excited that people are coming in and starting the series,” Shannon Stokley, an associate director for science for the immunization services division at CDC told the Wall Street Journal. “But now we need to work on getting them back in so they’re getting all the doses to complete the series.”
A study published in 2013 by the Journal of the American Medical Association found evidence that the first two rounds of the HPV series are just as effective at preventing the STI as all three, and the CDC updated its guidelines to clarify that, for teens under 15, two doses could be just as effective as three. For older teens, doctors currently recommend all three vaccines within a timespan of no less than six months in order to prevent the maximum number of HPV strains. So it’s not that failing to get all three doses renders your first or second shots ineffective, but getting only one or two appears to offer less protection that completing the three shots on the recommended schedule.
What’s ultimately disheartening about this is that the ability to prevent cervical cancer is, frankly, incredible. And as the CDC notes, teens are staying up-to-date on other crucial vaccinations, like the Tdap vaccine (which protects against tetanus, diphtheria, and whooping cough) and the meningitis vaccine, while failing to complete their HPV series at the same time.
The HPV vaccine has also proven to be somewhat controversial because it means parents of young adolescents have to acknowledge the fact that their 11- and 12-year-old kids are, someday, going to have sex. If that sounds wild to you, there’s evidence to back this up: A study from 2016, published in the health journal Pediatrics, found that more than one-third of a pool of 582 pediatricians weren’t recommending parents have their children receive the HPV vaccine, because they were worried parents would be offended by the suggestion. Data from as recent as Sept. 1, 2017 also shows that teens who live outside of metropolitan areas — and particularly those who live in the South, Midwest, and Appalachian states — are much less likely to receive the HPV vaccine, in no small part because of taboos attached to sexuality.
If you’re in that majority of teens or young adults who have yet to fully complete your HPV series, you can consult your doctor to talk about getting your second or third shots.
Correction: A previous version of this article said further research was needed to confirm two HPV vaccines could be just as effective as three. The CDC updated its guidelines in December 2016 to say that receiving two doses is comparably effective at preventing HPV as three doses for teenagers under 15.