Sexual health experts concerned by drop in number of young people getting HPV vaccine

Sexual health experts are concerned by a drop in the number of young people vaccinated last year against HPV, a virus that can cause a raft of cancers including most types of cervical cancers.

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Vaccines for HPV are offered to intermediate school age children but some GPs say there could be factors beyond Covid for reduced numbers receiving the jab. Source: 1 NEWS

By Vandhna Bhan

The vaccine for HPV, Gardasil, is offered nationwide to intermediate school age children and is free for anyone aged nine to 26. The Ministry of Health's in-school immunisation programme began in 2008, but doctors say our vaccination rates aren't where they should be, with around one third of eligible young people are still not getting vaccinated.

"This isn’t a disease of sexually promiscuous people. It's caused and spread by intimate activity that can be oral sex, it can be anal sex, it can be vaginal intercourse. HPV has reached 80 per cent of us, 80 per cent of us have either had it or have it so it's common and widespread,” Dr Gary Payinda said.

Last year, the Ministry of Health say 99,494 vaccines were administered, 7,000 less than the previous year, but well up on the 75,915 vaccines given in 2018.

Covid-19 is seen as a major factor in this.

"I suspect lockdown actually put a pause on the vaccination programme and made it very difficult for schools to deliver it. Any drop exposes young people to the risks of HPV infection,” Sexual health expert Dr Cathy Stephenson said.

There's also concern some schools aren't offering the vaccine or passing on information to parents for moral and religious reasons.

Former Catholic school board chairwoman Jacinda Thompson has seen this and says it's due to people "making the connection between an STD and a 12-year-old".

"(A lot of our) board members believed things like that if 12-year-olds have this vaccine it'll make them sexually active younger. I would feel terrible if I came across some of those ex-students and heard that they had cancer as a result."

She says health decisions should not be up to a board of trustees, "denying families that opportunity they can’t just wipe their hands of that when down the road those people are facing a cancer diagnosis and what comes with that".

1 NEWS has spoken to a number of faith-based schools and institutions, who all say Ministry of Health information about the Gardasil vaccine is sent home, and students with parental consent can get their vaccinations at school. But a handful of women have reached out claiming it was never offered at their school.

“Yes a lot of them are really surprised to find out that there was a vaccine that was available and that they didn't actually access it so I suspect a lot of the time it’s the parent making the decision,” Stephenson said.

"If we do the right thing now, we will have women alive 20, 30 years from now and cancer free, there’s the potential of even almost eradicating cervical cancer," Payinda said.

DHBs across the country have been contacted to see how many schools currently don't offer the vaccine.

Health professionals are now calling for authorities to ramp up vaccination rates.