09/02/2011 09:22 am ET Updated Nov 02, 2011

Why The HPV Vaccine Isn't Sticking

Here's a simple choice: Would you rather potentially develop cancer or take what many experts say is a harmless vaccine that would prevent you from developing certain forms of cancer for the rest of your life?

It's a no-brainer, right?

Well, you'd think so, yet use of the vaccine for Human papillomavirus (HPV), which can cause genital warts, cervical cancer and cancers of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, and head and neck, has completely stagnated according to a new study, "National, State and Local Area Vaccination Coverage among Adolescents Aged 13-17 Years," released by the the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on August 25, 2011.

While HPV is becoming as common as a cold, with at least 50 percent of sexually active men and women contracting HPV at some point in their lives, the HPV vaccine is barely catching on. Fewer than half of all teen girls have begun the HPV vaccination, and, even when teen girls begin the vaccination, only two in three complete the series.

There are also significant racial, ethnic and poverty disparities for HPV vaccination completion rates and in cervical cancer rates, so the disparities in the vaccination rates will continue to compound the disease disparity. It is clear that paying for the vaccination has been an issue, however it is now free of cost for most teens as part of the prevention benefits of the Affordable Care Act.

Currently, approximately 20 million Americans are infected with HPV, and another 6 million are infected each year.

There are painful consequences to our failure to vaccinate: Annually, around 12,000 women develop cervical cancer, 3,700 develop vulvar cancer, 1,000 develop vaginal cancer and 2,700 develop anal cancer.

According to the National Institutes for Health (NIH), the estimated lifetime total medical cost of HPV infection for men and women aged 15-24 is $2.9 billion, which makes HPV the second most expensive STD after HIV. In addition, the direct medical care costs associated with cervical cancer were estimated to equal $1.7 billion in 1996 dollars, according to the CDC.

One of the great gifts of the modern world is medicine -- the ability to prevent or cure ailments. Cancer has alluded this gift and proven to be incredibly dangerous and, sometimes, hard to catch in time -- especially when it comes to cervical and vulvar cancer.

I believe that we need public health officials to begin a major education campaign that overcomes parental misunderstandings about vaccines and the willingness of some politicians to put the future health of today's youth at unnecessary risk because they are squeamish about talking about anything with any sort of connection to "s-e-x."

With the development of the HPV vaccine, we have the ability to prevent thousands of cancers and deaths each year, yet we don't. We're turning our backs on progress and intentionally making life more difficult and expensive and potentially shorter for millions Americans.