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HPV Vaccines Less Effective for Black Women

By Jazelle Hunt NNPA Washington Correspondent | 11/22/2013, 6 a.m.

Duke University’s study is limited by its sample size. But if it reflects a larger trend: African American women are much less likely as White women to carry these forms of the virus and are thus less protected from the cancers they cause.

Many researchers have been closely following the data to see if the vaccines are actually affecting HPV infection rates.

A study published this past June 2013 in The Journal of Infectious Diseases has compared HPV rates among girls age 14 through 19 from before Gardasil hit shelves (2003-2006), and after (2007-2010). Between the time periods, infection rates were cut in half for strains 16 and 18, nearly eliminated for strains 6 and 11, and trimmed for milder, less common strains. The results are being touted as proof that the vaccines are indeed curbing HPV among teens, and by extension, will curb cervical cancer in the future.

But for whom?

In the case of high-risk strains that aren’t covered by the vaccine – such as 35, 66, and 68, the strains most prevalent in Black women – the report states the decline was too miniscule to be statistically relevant. These strains aren’t even pictured on the study’s dramatic-looking bar graph. To be fair, though, the low-risk strains prevalent in Black women also saw major declines.

This study’s population was reflective of American demographics. Additionally, sexually active, unvaccinated girls were included – 20 percent were African American, 56 percent White, and 23 percent “Other.”

Neither Merck nor GlaxoSmithKline has addressed the lack of coverage for HPV strains prevalent in African American women, though neither company has ever addressed public and legislative controversy surrounding the HPV vaccine.

Merck is currently testing an updated HPV vaccine that fights nine dangerous strains instead of four (6, 11, 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52 and 58). Although their preliminary study results are promising, the disparity will likely remain.

“The most disconcerting part of this new vaccine is it doesn’t include HPV 35, 66 and 68, three of the strains of HPV of which African-American women are getting the most,” said study co-author, Cathrine Hoyo. “We may want to rethink how we develop these vaccines, given that African-Americans tend to be underrepresented in clinical trials.”