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North Dakota could eradicate cervical cancer thanks to high HPV vaccination rates, health department says

HPV causes more than 90% of cervical and anal cancers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The percentage of North Dakotans who are getting the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination has increased since it was first introduced in 2006, health experts say. April Baumgarten / The Forum

BISMARCK — More than 88% of North Dakota adolescents 13 to 17 received at least one dose of the HPV vaccine in 2019, and because many North Dakotans are opting for the shot, the state could very well be on its way towards eradicating cervical cancer among its residents.

Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is the most common type of sexually transmitted infection in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many people who contract the virus experience no symptoms, and the infection goes away on its own. For others, HPV can develop into cervical, penile, anal or other forms of cancer.

If North Dakota, which had the second-highest rate of HPV vaccinations in the U.S. in 2019, continues to promote the HPV vaccine and regular cancer screenings, it could one day eradicate cervical cancer in the state, said State Immunization Manager Molly Howell.

“We do have the potential, through vaccination and also preventative screenings, to completely eliminate a cancer, and that’s really exciting,” Howell said.

More than 90% of cervical and anal cancers are caused by HPV, the CDC says. An estimated 4,300 women nationwide will die from cervical cancer in 2021, according to the American Cancer Society.


The North Dakota Department of Health recommends youth get the HPV vaccine before they turn 13 for it to be the most effective. The vaccine is given in a series, with adolescents under 15 receiving a recommended two doses and teens older than 15 receiving three.

In 2019, almost 90% of North Dakota adolescents 13 to 17 started the HPV vaccine series, and 77% of adolescents in the same age group completed the series, according to the CDC. In contrast, the vaccination rate for the entire U.S. in the same year for teens starting the series was 72%, and only 54% of teens nationwide completed the series.

The Department of Health credits its high HPV vaccination rate to primary care providers encouraging parents to get their children vaccinated to prevent cancer.

“Our health care providers really feel strongly about this vaccine and its safety and its effectiveness, and so they really have a strong recommendation that parents vaccinate their adolescent against HPV,” Howell said.

Many North Dakota youth receive the HPV vaccine when they get their required immunizations before starting seventh and 11th grade or during their annual high school sports physicals, Howell said.

The HPV vaccine is not required in the majority of states, including North Dakota, but at least three states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico require the vaccine for students to attend school, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The vaccine is not associated with increased sexual activity among adolescents who receive it, according to a study led by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health published in the journal Pediatrics.

Howell said the HPV vaccination rate remained steady throughout the COVID-19 pandemic even though fewer people opted for routine check-up appointments.


The pandemic was at the forefront of the Department of Health’s messaging and outreach efforts recently, but it hopes to bring additional attention to eradicating cervical cancer and promoting HPV vaccinations in the near future, Howell said.

Readers can reach reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at mgriffith@forumcomm.com.

Michelle (she/her, English speaker) is a Bismarck-based journalist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and Report for America, a national service organization that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered topics and communities.
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