Politics & Government

Washington’s rate of HPV vaccinations rising but still not equal to a state that mandates them

In this 2006 photo, a doctor holds a vial of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine Gardasil in his Chicago office.
In this 2006 photo, a doctor holds a vial of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine Gardasil in his Chicago office. AP

The rate of teenagers in Washington being vaccinated for the human papillomavirus, or HPV, has soared in the last year, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While the rate of vaccinations among Pierce County teenagers appears to be improving as well, the county still lags behind the state overall state rate.

The CDC’s 2016 National Immunization Survey shows roughly 65 percent of children in the state between the ages of 13 and 17 got at least one dose of the HPV vaccine, compared to 56 percent in the 2015 survey.

State health officials attribute the uptick to outreach campaigns by medical professionals and governments in Washington to spread the word to doctors and families about the relatively new vaccine, which first became available to the public in 2006.

Gauging the success of the vaccination campaigns for the South Sound is a bit imprecise.

The state keeps immunization records based on the county where the vaccine was administered, not where a child’s home is, said Marianne Remy, immunization coordinator for the Thurston County Immunization Program. She was unable to provide county numbers.

Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department spokeswoman Edie Jeffers said HPV vaccinations have been promoted in the South Sound since shortly after the immunization was approved in 2007. Pierce County’s statistics indicate 52 percent of 13-17 year olds in 2016 had received at least one dose of the HPV vaccine, compared to 43 percent in 2014.

HPV is a common infection that is sexually transmitted. Some types of HPV can lead to cancer, and the vaccine protects against most of the common cancers caused by the virus. Children need two or three doses of the vaccine to be fully protected, depending on age.

Danielle Koenig, the Immunization Health Promotion Supervisor for the state Department of Health, said Washington’s improving results are proof the HPV vaccine is starting to become more commonplace in the state, in part thanks to educational efforts.

“We look at these numbers as evidence those messages are taking hold and people are becoming more comfortable with it,” Koenig said.

While Washington’s HPV vaccination rate climbed higher this year — and beats the national 60.4 percent average — it still lags behind other states. Rhode Island tops the country, with roughly 89 percent of teenagers in that age group getting at least one dose of the HPV vaccine. Washington ranks 15th, when counting the District of Columbia.

The Evergreen State isn’t likely to catch up to Rhode Island any time soon.

Unlike Washington, Rhode Island requires students to get the HPV vaccine before they enter seventh grade. The mandate has been controversial but also effective.

Local officials there say the requirement, coupled with robust outreach about the vaccine, has heightened awareness and sent vaccination rates sky high.

Opponents have hit back claiming the vaccine might be unsafe and needs further study. Measures that would allow parents to opt out of the vaccine requirement have since been introduced in Rhode Island’s Legislature but never passed.

The CDC and numerous other health organizations worldwide say the vaccine is safe to use and is effective at preventing some forms of cancer.

In Washington, health officials and medical organizations have stuck with a public-outreach approach rather than attempt to put forward a mandate.

State Sen. David Frockt, a Democrat from Seattle who has been involved in HPV vaccination issues in the Legislature, said he would be open to such a mandate in Washington, but it hasn’t been debated seriously at the Capitol.

Frockt said health officials maintain a school mandate could stir a rise in skepticism from anti-vaccine campaigners over the vaccine’s safety.

He said state lawmakers have been more dedicated to increasing participation in existing vaccine requirements for diseases such as mumps, which can spread quickly through a school.

There have been battles in the Legislature over whether the state should end its philosophical opt-out for those vaccines to raise vaccination rates and decrease breakouts of diseases.

Opt-out supporters have stood firm against such legislation. Many lawmakers believe parents should always get to choose whether to immunize children without the kids being barred from schools.

Rep. Joe Schmick, R-Colfax, told The News Tribune and The Olympian in May he believes kids should be immunized, but it ultimately should be “a parental decision.”

With no mandate option currently on the table, Frockt said he is still advocating for more “aggressive” public outreach on HPV to try and raise Washington’s vaccination rates higher. He said more money for the Department of Health might be necessary for a larger campaign.

The state Health Department’s goal is to have 80 percent of children get the full dose of vaccines for HPV. Only 44 percent of teen boys are up to date on HPV vaccinations, while 55 percent of girls are, according to a department news release.

The vaccine was recommended only for girls when it first came out, Koenig said, explaining the gender discrepancy.

Federal officials encourage children be vaccinated for HPV starting around age 11, but people can take the vaccine between ages 9 and 26, Koenig said. Children only need two doses of the vaccine if they start the vaccination series before age 15. Otherwise, three are recommended.

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826, @walkerorenstein