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HPV vaccination rates increase among Utan teens

A higher share of Utah teens are getting vaccinated against HPV than ever before, but most adolescents are still not getting the vaccine, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A higher share of Utah teens are getting vaccinated against HPV than ever before, but most adolescents are still not getting the vaccine, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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SALT LAKE CITY — A higher share of Utah teens are getting vaccinated against HPV than ever before, but most adolescents are still not getting the vaccine, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Utah, 59 percent of teenage girls and 29 percent of teenage boys received at least the first dose in the three-shot vaccination series that protects against cancer and genital warts.

That's close to national averages, where 60 percent of girls and 42 percent of boys have started the series, according to the CDC.

For a state that has some of the lowest HPV vaccination rates in the nation, it’s progress, said Shannon Rice, a health promotion specialist at the Utah Department of Health.

"The national average is low too, but we're getting closer," Rice said. "We just need to get the word out that it's important and what it's really all about, that it's cancer prevention — period."

Rice runs the department's HPV vaccine awareness campaign, funded by a federal grant awarded to the department in 2013. The campaign seeks to fight the stigma of HPV as a sexually transmitted infection and misinformation about the vaccine’s effectiveness.

Midvale mom Brenda Gardner and her ex-husband Alan Gardner worried about both when they first heard about the HPV vaccine years ago.

They were split on getting their four preteen children vaccinated. She wanted to; the children's father didn't.

"His concern was our kids aren't going to be sexually active, so why should we be getting this vaccine, and I think that's where a lot of the concerned parents, particularly in Utah, are at,” she said.

Alan Gardner said he worried profit-seeking pharmaceutical companies were pushing the vaccine and that it could have negative side effects.

"The kids were 11 or 12, and I really hope they're not sexually active until they're later," he said. "So why do it now?"

Audrey Stevenson, a division director at the Salt Lake County Health Department, said public health officials are still battling such misperceptions.

The vaccine for hepatitis B, which can also be spread through sexual intercourse, took a "similar trajectory" from suspicion to eventual acceptance, she said.

“When it was first introduced, there were a lot of families that didn’t get it because they didn’t think their children were at risk,” Stevenson said. “Now everybody gets it. HPV may one day get to that point.”

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the world. Nearly all sexually active men and women will get it at some point in their lives.

Stevenson said people often believe the virus can only be spread by sexual intercourse when in fact the virus can spread via any intimate, skin-to-skin contact. Many people also think HPV only affects women, Stevenson said, but the virus can cause genital warts and cancers in men as well, and the drug is recommended for boys and girls.

Even doctors are not as well-educated about the vaccine as they need to be, Stevenson said, which causes more confusion.

She remains concerned that the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, based in St. George, does not offer the HPV vaccine. Spokesman David Heaton said the department remains "neutral" on whether they recommend it.

The TriCounty Health Department also started offering the vaccine within the last year or two, according to a spokeswoman. Under a previous director, the department didn't offer the vaccine without a note from a doctor.

"From the state perspective, they have concerns every time there are limitations of vaccines to the community,” Stevenson said.

Rice agreed and said public health officials are training doctors to recommend the HPV vaccine in stronger terms.

"We have doctors saying, ‘OK, you're here for your required vaccines, but let's talk about this other one. It's not required. I don't know if you want it,’" Rice said.

Instead, they're asking doctors to say, "Hey, we've got this vaccine that's a cancer vaccine. Let's get it done today," she said.

Brenda Gardner said she wishes her doctor had pushed her harder when she initially asked about the vaccine.

She and her ex-husband ultimately decided to get their children vaccinated, but it turns out it’s not easy to get, even in Salt Lake County.

The Salt Lake County Health department didn't take her insurance, and with each shot costing $150, Brenda Gardner was looking at nearly $600 to fully vaccinate each child. Private doctors who did take her insurance required she bring her kids for checkups first. That was difficult for a mother of four teens.

Finally, Brenda Gardner found out Community Nursing Services would accept her insurance. But it took awhile before she could get all her kids there at once.

“It’s a time issue for me,” she said. “They’re only open one day a week at a certain time. … I work; my ex-husband works. It’s been very difficult to actually get the vaccination.”

As of now, her kids have had the first round of the vaccine, but Gardner hasn’t been able to schedule the next two yet.

“Had I been informed before, or my husband been informed before we went to the doctor to do the junior high vaccinations and stuff, it could have happened at the same time,” Brenda Gardner said.

Email: dchen@deseretnews.com

Twitter: DaphneChen_