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SAN DIEGO (CNS) – As the start of school approaches, local public health leaders called Thursday on parents to protect children from preventable diseases, in particular the human papillomavirus or HPV that is responsible for 36,000 new cervical cancer diagnoses each year.

In April 2020, vaccinations for children decreased by more than 40% compared to the same month the previous year, according to the California Department of Public Health.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that vaccination in the United States for HPV — the most common sexually transmitted infection —  dropped by 21% during the pandemic. However, even before the pandemic, the number of San Diegans who had received the complete series of HPV vaccines was at 54%. That’s far below the national goal of 80% vaccination, and significantly lagging behind the rates for Meningococcal — 93% — and Tdap — 94% — immunizations, which are typically given during the same visit.

“Essential immunizations keep our kids safe from numerous, serious vaccine-preventable diseases, and this back-to-school immunization push has never been more critical,” said Dr. Mark Sawyer, a professor and pediatrics program director at the UC San Diego School of Medicine.

“While the pandemic has disrupted normal back to school schedules, we are urging parents and guardians to contact their primary care team and get their adolescents caught up on lifesaving immunizations,” he said.

The San Diego chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency, San Diego County Board of Supervisors, Mayor Todd Gloria’s office and the San Diego County Office of Education have issued an urgent call to physicians, parents and young people to get adolescent immunization levels back on track.

Both San Diego County and the City of San Diego issued separate proclamations recognizing the first week of August as California HPV Vaccine Week.

The CDC recommends Tdap, HPV and Meningococcal vaccinations for boys and girls ages 11 to 12, as well as an annual influenza vaccine, and endorses the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in adolescents 12 years and older. Catch- up HPV vaccination is recommended through age 26, and up to age 45.

A team at Moores Cancer Center at UCSD Health led by Jesse Nodora,an associate professor in the Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health and Human Longevity Science at UCSD, investigated HPV vaccination knowledge, awareness and practices by health providers, pharmacists and school or university providers in San Diego County to help stakeholders identify opportunities to increase HPV vaccinations.

The findings were presented in February at the San Diego HPV Vaccination Call to Action Summit, creating the basis for an academic community workgroup called San Diego Protecting Against HPV.

“While the work to increase HPV vaccination rates in our county has been challenged by the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, these immunizations have never been more important,” said Nodora, who is also director of community engagement at the Altman Clinical and Translational Research Institute.

The workgroup is currently focused on capacity building and inventory projects, curating continuing education for local providers, facilitating learning opportunities for the community, investigating pilot research projects and increasing cancer prevention awareness. Its goal is to raise HPV vaccination rates to 80% by 2026. Community participation is encouraged.

The HPV vaccine prevents the strains most likely to cause genital warts and cervical cancer. Many people with HPV, for which there is no cure, don’t develop any symptoms, but can still infect others through sexual contact.

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