Compared to every other geographical region in the U.S., the HPV vaccination rates in Southern states are disproportionately low, according to a new study on the topic. Researchers are particularly alarmed by that finding because the South also has a disproportionately high rate of cervical cancer — the disease that can be directly caused by the transmission of HPV.
Researchers analyzed health data collected between 2008 and 2010 in representative states from four different U.S. regions: the Northeast, the Midwest, the West, and the South. The vaccination rates were relatively low across all regions — on average, 28 percent of women had begun the three-dose vaccination process, and just 17 percent had totally completed it. But when the data is broken down by region, some stark differences emerge.
The Northeast region had the highest HPV vaccination rates — about 37 percent of girls there had initiated the process, and 23 percent had completed it. In the Midwest/West regions, those rates dropped to 29 percent and 19 percent, respectively. But in the South, they plummeted much further. Just 14 percent of girls living in Southern states had started the first round of HPV vaccination, and only six percent of girls had successfully completed the three doses.
“If a lower rate of HPV vaccine uptake in the South persists, it could contribute to the national burden of cervical cancer in the long run,” Dr. Abbey Berenson, one of the lead researchers on the project, pointed out in a news release.
Indeed, the geographical disparity in HPV-related cancers is already evident. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), there are more deaths from cervical cancer in the South:
After the HPV vaccine was first introduced to the public, HPV infection rates among U.S. teens were cut in half. But the public health advances in this area are dependent on the number of kids who are actually getting their shots, and progress in that area has stalled. Federal officials have repeatedly warned that “unacceptably low” numbers of American kids are getting vaccinated for HPV, even though these shots are recommended for all girls beginning around the age of 11 or 12.
The ongoing resistance is partly due to some lingering stigma about the HPV vaccine. Despite all evidence to the contrary, some parents still worry that’s it not safe. And stoked by social conservatives’ resistance to providing teens with sexual health resources, some parents believe that the vaccine will somehow encourage their daughters to become more promiscuous. In the South specifically, the researchers behind the new study suggest that regional disparities in educational levels and insurance coverage are also to blame.
Some Republican lawmakers in the South have also actively undermined efforts to expand access to the HPV vaccine. Last year, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) vetoed a bill that would have provided more resources to encourage girls in the state to get the HPV vaccination. And after Gov. Rick Perry (R) issued an executive order in 2007 requiring middle-school girls to get vaccinated for the sexually transmitted infection, his fellow Republican lawmakers voted to overturn it and his Republican gubernatorial opponents condemned it.
Despite the fact that efforts to safeguard youth from STDs don’t typically go over well with conservatives, however, resistance to HPV vaccination does have serious consequences. Cancers related to HPV have been on the rise over the last two years. The Atlantic reports that if the U.S. raised its HPV vaccination rate to the levels in Rwanda — where more than 80 percent of teen girls are vaccinated — it would prevent 50,000 girls alive today from getting cervical cancer.