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U.S. health officials say a controversial vaccine against the HPV virus is working better than expected. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection. It's the cause of virtually all cervical cancer, and it's linked to other cancers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that all teenagers and young adults should get vaccinated, but so far very few have. NPR's Richard Knox has our story.
RICHARD KNOX, BYLINE: When the first vaccine against the human papillomavirus, or HPV, was approved seven years ago, the studies showed it should drastically lower a person's chance of getting infected. But Dr. Thomas Frieden says that doesn't necessarily mean the vaccines - there are two of them now - would be that good outside a study.
DR. THOMAS FRIEDEN: We knew that it was effective in clinical trials, but you always like to see what happens in the real world. So these results are extremely encouraging. They show that the vaccine works, and it works really well.
KNOX: Frieden is director of the CDC, and he says he's very happy to be announcing such good news. The results appear in the Journal of Infectious Diseases. They show that nationwide infections of the strains of HPV the vaccines protect against plummeted by more than half in the four years after they began to be used.
That's especially surprising because only one in three teenage girls has gotten the three recommended doses of the vaccine. Frieden says more infections could be prevented if more kids got the vaccine.
FRIEDEN: The coverage is very disappointing. It's certainly not good enough to protect women from cervical cancer.
KNOX: The U.S. rate of HPV vaccination is much lower than in other countries, Australia, for example, or even Rwanda.
FRIEDEN: That lower rate has very concrete implications. It means that among girls alive today aged zero to 13, 50,000 are going to develop cervical cancer that would have been prevented if we had reached the goal of 80 percent vaccination rate.
KNOX: Health officials say both girls and boys should get the vaccine at age 11 or 12 because it protects better in the long run. Frieden says parents resist the idea of vaccinating their pre-teen girls in particular against a sexually transmitted virus.
FRIEDEN: By saying that girls should get vaccinated starting at age 11, we're not saying we think girls are going to have sex at age 11.
KNOX: Another source of resistance is worry about the vaccines' safety, says Dr. Laurie Moskowitz of the CDC.
DR. LAURIE MOSKOWITZ: We know that there's a concern about safety because there's been a lot of information in the lay press about this. But we've been trying to increase the communications around safety to let people know the good safety profile that this vaccine has.
KNOX: Norma Erickson doesn't believe it. She's with a group called SaneVax. Its website features pictures of young women who died after getting vaccinated against HPV.
NORMA ERICKSON: We are convinced that people have died after taking the vaccine. It's our premise that it's not up to the parents to prove that it was or was not the vaccine. It's up to the manufacturers and the health authorities to prove that it wasn't.
KNOX: At a telephone press conference today, Cindy Weinbaum of the CDC says the agency knows of deaths among people who got the vaccine but has no reason to think they're related.
DR. CINDY WEINBAUM: There is no consistent pattern among the deaths that have occurred to people after they've been vaccinated that would give us any cause to be concerned at all that these deaths might be at all related.
KNOX: Unfortunately, young people die of other things and sometimes that happens after getting vaccinated. But it doesn't mean the vaccine caused the death. Richard Knox, NPR News.
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