HPV vaccination expected to reduce cancer burden in all races, may not eliminate all disparities

A young girl being vaccinated

For immediate release: April 28, 2016

Boston, MA – Human papillomavirus (HPV)-associated cancers occur more frequently, and sometimes with more deadly consequences, among Hispanics, blacks, and American Indian and Alaska Natives than among whites. A new study from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health finds that HPV vaccination is expected to reduce the cancer burden across all racial/ethnic groups. However, some disparities in cancer burden may persist and widen in the years to come if their causes—such as lack of access to diagnoses and treatment—aren’t addressed.

The study will appear online April 28, 2016 in the journal Cancer.

“As expected, we found HPV vaccination would reduce the overall disease burden for all racial and ethnic groups. However, we also found that some racial and ethnic disparities may continue to exist,” said Emily Burger, postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard Chan School’s Center for Health Decision Science.

Nearly 80 million people in the U.S.—about one in four—are currently infected with HPV. Roughly 14 million more become infected each year. HPV infections that don’t go away can lead to various forms of cancer. HPV vaccines, licensed since 2006 and recommended for boys and girls, are expected to lead to declines in six HPV-associated cancers, including cervical, anal, and oropharyngeal (throat) cancers. A recently licensed 9-valent HPV vaccine is expected to protect against additional HPV types that cause cancer. HPV vaccination has the potential to prevent up to three out of four HPV-associated cancers.

But, so far, uptake of the vaccines has been slow. Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that less than half of girls—and even fewer boys—aged 13-17 years have received all three recommended doses of the HPV vaccine series. The number of young people who complete the series also differs by racial and ethnic group. By comparison, the vaccination rate for the adolescent Tdap vaccine (for protection against tetanus, diphtheria and whooping cough) is about 85% or higher for all racial and ethnic groups.

Partnering with experts from the CDC, the Harvard Chan researchers used mathematical modeling to simulate the impact of alternative HPV vaccine coverage scenarios on six HPV-associated cancers for different racial/ethnic groups. They took into account current cancer incidence rates, and survival probabilities; the proportion of cancers due to HPV; and current HPV vaccination rates by age, sex, race, and ethnicity.

The study used both absolute and relative measures to examine the impact of HPV vaccination on racial/ethnic disparities. They found that while the absolute burden of cancer and disparities are expected to decrease with current or improved HPV vaccination coverage, relative disparities may persist and in some cases, increase. For instance, with high uptake of the 9-valent HPV vaccine, the risk of dying from an HPV-associated cancer was expected to decrease by 60% among all men. The estimated decrease in cancer burden was greater among some racial/ethnic groups, which led to an increase in the relative disparity among men. This is partly because HPV causes a smaller proportion of oropharyngeal cancers in black males than in white males, so vaccination would not have as much of an impact of the overall cancer burden for that group.

“Our findings show that vaccination can lead to a dramatic decrease in HPV-associated cancer in all racial and ethnic groups, but HPV vaccination alone will not eliminate existing HPV-associated cancer disparities. Efforts to improve HPV vaccination uptake in the U.S. must also be accompanied by efforts to minimize differences in access to screening for cervical cancer and access to timely diagnoses and treatment for all HPV-associated cancers,” said senior author Jane Kim, associate professor of health decision science in the Department of Health Policy and Management.

Other authors included Kyueun Lee, former research assistant at the Center for Health Decision Science at Harvard Chan School. CDC authors included Mona Saraiya, Trevor Thompson, Harrell Chesson, and Lauri Markowitz.

Funding for the study came from the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health (R01CA160744; Principal Investigator: Kim).

“Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Human Papillomavirus-Associated Cancer Burden With First-Generation and Second-Generation Human Papillomavirus Vaccines,” Emily A. Burger, Kyueun Lee, Mona Saraiya, Trevor D. Thompson, Harrell W. Chesson, Lauri E. Markowitz, and Jane J. Kim, Cancer, online April 28, 2016, doi: 10.1002/cncr.30007

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Marge Dwyer

photo: iStockphoto.com


Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health brings together dedicated experts from many disciplines to educate new generations of global health leaders and produce powerful ideas that improve the lives and health of people everywhere. As a community of leading scientists, educators, and students, we work together to take innovative ideas from the laboratory to people’s lives—not only making scientific breakthroughs, but also working to change individual behaviors, public policies, and health care practices. Each year, more than 400 faculty members at Harvard Chan School teach 1,000-plus full-time students from around the world and train thousands more through online and executive education courses. Founded in 1913 as the Harvard-MIT School of Health Officers, the School is recognized as America’s oldest professional training program in public health.