Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is the most prevalent sexually transmitted infection in the U.S. The virus is associated with causing over 30,000 cases of cancer a year, particularly cervical cancer. An effective vaccine exists and should be readily available, but far too few people are aware or have access to it.

All people possibly affected must have access to this vaccine.

Infographic by Owen Thomas
Infographic by Owen Thomas

Prohibitive costs and lack of healthcare leave countless individuals susceptible to HPV. A typical treatment can cost about $400. A full-time employee making the California state minimum wage of $10.50 makes $420 weekly before taxes. This asks people to choose between basic necessities and preventative healthcare.

Under the Affordable Care Act, all private insurance is required to cover the HPV vaccine, which was introduced just over 10 years ago. There are also options for public financing such as the Vaccines for Children program and federal insurance programs like Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program, which also help pay for vaccines for low-income, uninsured or underinsured children and teens.

But there is also a lack of understanding of HPV. The vaccine is most effective before people become sexually active. Medical professionals suggest children be vaccinated at age 11 or 12, but due to a lack of education surrounding the infection, many parents assume their children don’t need the vaccine if they are not sexually active.

Many people also assume HPV only affects individuals with internal genitalia. There is currently no effective test to detect HPV in individuals with external genitalia, but four of five people are exposed to a strain of HPV at some point in their lives. Persistent infections have been connected to penile and anal cancers. The vaccine protects patients from 70 percent of cancer-causing viruses and 90 percent of genital warts.

Many people also have fears about the HPV vaccine, similar to many other vaccines. An estimated 64 percent of parents in 2013 still, incorrectly, believed vaccines cause autism in their children. Others believe the vaccine could actually lead to their children contracting the virus — another common misconception. But physicians report that 73 percent of parents who choose to delay or avoid vaccines altogether claim the vaccine is unnecessary.

It’s important to recognize these parents and individuals are not necessarily at fault. These misconceptions about HPV are caused by faulty and inadequate sex education programs.

The Center For Disease Control (CDC) recommends public schools teach 16 topics related to STIs, HIV and pregnancy prevention. A 2014 study of 44 states found most public sex education programs are falling severely short of this. In the states surveyed, the data revealed fewer than half the schools in each state achieved the CDC goal. In Arizona, only 21 percent of schools actually taught all 16 subjects recommended by the CDC.

Sex education in general is devastatingly inadequate. At least 37 states reportedly do not require that sex education be medically accurate. Eighteen states do not require schools to teach information on contraception. In 2014, 29 states, including California, did not even require that sex education be taught.

With this severe lack of education, we should not be surprised people are left with misconceptions about HPV. If schools don’t even guarantee factual sex education, they can’t inform students and families on vital preventable care. Though sex education may not increase vaccination rates, it could at least allow people to better understand HPV and take other preventative measures such as protected sex.

To combat rising cases of HPV, a virus that has been projected to claim 4,000

women’s lives this year to cervical cancer, we must combat ignorance and misunderstanding.

There is still much to be done to increase accessibility for the HPV vaccine and treatment. All children must have access to the HPV vaccine — not just those who qualify for low-income health insurance programs or those who have the financial resources to afford it on their own. We must also increase screenings for HPV so people can seek earlier treatment and take effective, preventative measures to protect their partners.

An increase in access to vaccines, alongside effective sex and public health education that demystifies misconceptions about HPV, can offer people the resources necessary to avoid serious risks associated with the virus. We have the resources and knowledge to help people avoid this common virus, and everyone needs to have access to both.