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A vaccine prevents cancer, yet few use it


Thousands of lives could be saved by a simple vaccination to protect against Human Papillomavirus (HPV). Yet only 51% of teens receive the vaccine each year. Every year more than four thousand people die from cancers related to HPV.

“It's upsetting, it's really upsetting,” says Deanna Kepka, PhD, MPH, a population scientist at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI). “If you ask any cancer survivor whether they would have taken an opportunity to get a vaccine that prevented their cancer, they would say yes.”

The HPV vaccine is given in three doses to girls and boys around age 12. Deanna explains that four in ten girls in the United States aren’t getting the first dose. Six in ten boys aren’t getting the first dose. She adds, “Barely a majority receive the first dose, which gives only minimal protection against the HPV types covered in the vaccine.”

Chris Jensen is the father of three teenage sons. The boys were at the doctor’s office for routine checkups when their primary care physician explained the benefits of the HPV vaccine.

Chris didn’t hesitate to get his sons vaccinated. “I wanted to give them a basic insurance against any particular cancer,” he explains. “Anything you can do to reduce that risk, it just makes sense to do it, and for me this just made sense to do it.”

The HPV vaccine could prevent up to 30,000 cancers per year in the United States, yet Deanna says there’s still a stigma about a vaccine used to treat HPV, a sexually transmitted disease. She says, “I think when you're asking the parent of an 11- or 12-year old to think about a sexually transmitted infection, they want to shy away.”

But, Deanna adds, parents shouldn’t avoid a potentially uncomfortable topic of conversation if it could save their child from a cancer diagnosis. “We have a vaccine that prevents cancer,” she reiterates, “Let me repeat that: we have a vaccine that prevents cancer.”

For Chris, the decision to protect his children was an easy one. “You put sunscreen on them, why not vaccinate?” he says.

Deanna hopes all primary care providers will eventually recommend the HPV vaccine with as much enthusiasm as they recommend other immunizations for adolescents.

The vaccine is available for free to children who have little or no insurance.

Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) is a National Cancer Institute (NCI)-Designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, which means it meets the highest standards for cancer research and receives support for its scientific endeavors. HCI is located on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and is a part of the University of Utah Health Care system. HCI treats patients with all forms of cancer and operates several high-risk clinics that focus on melanoma and breast, colon, and pancreas cancers, among others. HCI also provides academic and clinical training for future physicians and researchers. For more information about HCI, please visit