September marks Gynecologic Cancer Awareness Month, a month to bring awareness to gynecologic cancers which include cervical, ovarian, endometrial, and vaginal/vulvar cancers. Around 94,000 women are diagnosed with gynecologic cancers in the United States each year, 11,100 of which are cervical cancers caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV).  HPV causes six different types of cancers, including vaginal, vulvar, and cervical cancers in women. Thankfully, the HPV vaccine can help prevent these cancers.

The HPV vaccine is routinely recommended to male and female youth and adolescents. However, rural residents face several barriers in receiving this life-saving vaccine. These include 1) lack of HPV knowledge and its link to cancer, 2) fewer opportunities to be offered vaccination because of decreased healthcare access and  higher uninsured rates and 3) infrequent well-child visits. These barriers have resulted in a lower number of rural residents to receive the HPV vaccine, leading to higher rates of HPV-associated cancer in these areas. The CDC, St. Jude and the National HPV Roundtable have several resources to assist in eliminating this disparity by improving HPV vaccination rates among rural populations.

According to the CDC, healthcare professionals in rural areas can play an important role in their patients’ health by:

The St. Jude HPV Cancer Prevention Program has convened a rural HPV “think tank” and has provided resources, including a “Preventing HPV Cancers in Rural Communities” Fact Sheet. Similar to the CDC, St. Jude provides important guidance to rural communities to increase HPV vaccination:

  • Get vaccinated against HPV: If you or your child is in the recommended age range, get vaccinated.
  • Encourage others to get vaccinated: Normalize HPV vaccination as a tool for cancer prevention.
  • Share the facts: HPV vaccination is safe, effective, and durable. It prevents six types of cancer.

Additionally, the HPV Vaccination Program at St. Jude collaborated with FTI Consulting to develop five policy recommendations to improve HPV vaccination coverage:

  • Leverage meningococcal conjugate vaccination as a model for HPV vaccination education and recommendations.
  • Expand health care provider and practice staff education and training related to HPV vaccination and strengthen HPV vaccination recommendations for parents and caregivers.
  • Improve efforts to recruit and enroll various types of health care providers in the federal Vaccines for Children (VFC) program.
  • Expand the resources available to improve HPV vaccination data collection and reporting through state immunization information systems (IISs).

The National HPV Roundtable also provides resources to assist in HPV vaccination uptake.

  • The HPV Prevention Starts at Age 9 initiative complete with a communication toolkit, evidence summary and messaging guidelines.
  • HPV vaccination evidence summaries that present scientific evidence that address clinical, public health, health system policy and social-system policy questions related to HPV vaccine acceptance.
  • Actions guides to encourage providers, support teams and health systems to act today.

Appropriate education and policy changes can help reduce disparities and the overall burden of preventable gynecologic cancers, especially in rural areas.