Check Up: Phila. a leader in vaccinating girls

Posted: September 25, 2012

Despite federal recommendations, cervical cancer vaccination continues to be a hard sell to teenage females, six years after its debut was hailed as a public-health breakthrough.

Philadelphia, long a center for vaccine research, is one of the striking exceptions.

In the City of Brotherly Love last year, 75.9 percent of females aged 13 to 17 had received at least one shot of Merck's Gardasil or GlaxoSmithKline's Cervarix, and almost half had received all three shots, according to new government data.

Philly's rates are rivaled only by Rhode Island, Vermont, and El Paso, Texas.

Nationally, just 53 percent of the female target group have gotten one shot, while 34.8 percent have gotten the whole series.

There are several reasons for Philadelphia's success, said Caroline Johnson, who heads the disease control division in the city's Department of Public Health.

From the start, she said, doctors' acceptance of the vaccine was high while parental resistance was low. Elsewhere, parents worried about safety, propriety, and morality. The vaccine protects against strains of the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus (HPV), which causes cervical cancer, and is ideally given at age 11 or 12, before girls become sexually active.

"We haven't had much push-back locally," Johnson said.

Another factor is insurance coverage. Publicly funded health insurance programs, including Vaccines for Children, and private plans fully cover the shots.

"Every child is eligible for the vaccine at no cost. No parent should ever pay a dollar," Johnson said.

Another factor: City school students entering seventh grade must be vaccinated against meningitis. Doctors use that opportunity to provide the HPV vaccine, even though it isn't mandated.

Philadelphia also offers the vaccine in places such as STD clinics. That helps explain why 19 percent of males ages 13 to 17 have rolled up their sleeves - more than twice the national average.

The vaccine is recommended for males partly to compensate for disappointing usage by girls, and because the HPV virus is linked to anal cancer and some rare cancers of the penis and throat.

- Marie McCullough

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