A vaccination can prevent 90% of cancers caused by human papillomavirus or HPV. But Texas has been slow to embrace it. Denton County's public health director looks to his own region for possible reasons for the low vaccination rates.
A campaign is underway to increase HPV vaccinations in 26 North Texas counties. The American Cancer Society says "Mission: HPV Cancer Free Texas," will target preteens through focused outreach to health care providers and parents. The three-year project, funded by Dallas philanthropist Lyda Hill (a financial supporter of KERA), also will work to educate health care providers about the vaccination, Gardasil.
The number of Texas children who have received the two shots required falls below the national average of 49%. The state ranks 44th of 50 states for HPV vaccinations.
"Anything we can do to reduce the hesitancy will increase the percentage of children that have been vaccinated," said Dr. Matt Richardson, director of the Denton County Public Health. "And that can only be a good thing 20 years from now for people who don't have a cancer, and we're excited about that."
HPV Vaccinations in Denton County: "The database shows that 53% of Denton County eligible children — 13 to 17 in 2017 — initiated it. Only 31% completed and are up to date for that year. That means that there is a segment of Denton County children who are protected for generations to come. It also shows us we had a long way to go."
Do pre-teens and parents understand the importance of the HPV vaccine? "The conversation, especially in seventh grade, beginning about the importance of prevention can be difficult, but this is the age where we recommend that they do start discussing with kids risk, and that can be a hard conversation. But it's important — prevention, talking about how your health can be linked to behaviors and how to how to protect yourself."
Role of conscientious exemptions: "In Denton County, 2017 to 2018, our school exemption rates as a county average was 2.2 percent. That number is now 2.89%. We have, you know, maybe a population of 860,500 people who live in Denton County, so those percentages are troublesome. What that's telling us is that parents still have this vaccine hesitancy."
What's behind the hesitancy: "There can be misinformation that propagates through social media to parents. The types of studies that we really build a foundation of medicine on, people seem to be, for whatever reason turning their back on this science. And it's frustrating."
Focus on educating health care providers: "There's so many tasks required in our health care system — insurance referral and case management — things are a barrier to time with the provider. This campaign obviously wants to educate providers and really train them on influencing parents to make this decision of prevention. We compete, almost, with time to help the providers educate a vaccine hesitant group."