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How many parents or teenagers are worried about catching diphtheria? Do any of them know the early symptoms of tetanus or whooping cough? The good news is that most don’t need to know the first signs of these preventable diseases because vaccination, particularly of infants and younger children, has been one of the most successful public health accomplishments in history. We no longer have a collective memory of how these diseases impacted generations of families. However, despite progress, we still see headlines of children, teenagers, and young adults dying of preventable diseases. This may be because vaccination rates for immunizations given to teens are lower than it ought to be. For example, in 2015, only 33% of teens at least 17 years of age (who received their first dose before the age of 16) received their second recommended dose of meningitis (MenACWY) vaccine. Less than 50% of male teens and 65% of female teens have received the first dose of the HPV vaccine.

Unity Consortium, a non-profit organization that brings together diverse groups that share a common and passionate interest in adolescent and young adult health with a focus on prevention and immunization, just released results from a series of national surveys of parents of teens, teens, and healthcare providers that may explain why vaccination rates for meningitis, as well as HPV, Tdap, and flu remain far too low. In a nutshell, vaccination rates may be stagnant partly because of attitudes about vaccination and missed opportunities.

Misperceptions about preventive health have long-term consequences

Unity Consortium’s surveys were conducted by Harris Poll and included 515 U.S. parents of teens ages 13-18, 506 teens ages 13-18, 405 physicians, and 105 pharmacists. The survey found that nearly all parents realize the importance of addressing “hot topics” to help their teens stay healthy, such as keeping them safe from STDs (92%), avoiding alcohol/drugs/smoking (95%), and getting enough sleep (94%). However, somewhat fewer (80%) say getting all recommended vaccines is important, despite the fact that vaccination is vital for future health.

While most teens (92%) trust their doctor when seeking information about their health, nearly half (47%) agree they do not like talking to doctors or other healthcare providers. Furthermore, virtually all healthcare providers agree that many teens think the things they do now will not have a big effect on their health in the future. In reality, the habits adopted at a young age, both good and bad, can have life-long effects. Diet, activity level, risky behavior choices, and a willingness to embrace preventive health at a young age can all impact adolescents well into adulthood.

Missed opportunities for preventive health education

Not all parents and teens realize the value of annual check-ups and vaccination. For example, the survey found that 4 in 10 parents and nearly 6 in 10 teens believe teens should only see a doctor when he/she feels sick. This perception effectively reduces opportunities for physicians to discuss preventive health measures, such as vaccination, with teenagers and their parents. Similarly, the survey found that approximately 1 in 4 parents and teens believe that vaccines are for babies and not as important for teens. In addition, more than one-third of teens don’t know how being vaccinated helps them. These questions—and any other issues important to families—can be addressed during annual check-ups.

The good news is that as teenagers get older, particularly girls, they expressed interest in taking more responsibility for preventive health. But most parents (87%) indicated that they shoulder most of the responsibility for getting their teens vaccinated. That’s why annual checkups are so critical. The 11-12 and 16-year-old appointments are essential for teens to be on the recommended schedule for vaccinations. The CDC recommends that adolescents receive the following vaccines to protect their health in the short and long-term.

  • Meningococcal: Two distinct meningococcal disease vaccines (ACWY and B) protect against the most common types of bacterial meningitis. While most people recover from meningitis, permanent disabilities (such as brain damage, hearing loss, and learning disabilities) and even death can result from the infection. Receiving both vaccines can help ensure protection from these potentially devastating infections.
  • Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis [whooping cough]) and Td Booster (tetanus and diphtheria): Recently, there have been outbreaks of whooping cough in the United States.
  • HPV (human papillomavirus): The vaccine is most effective at preventing HPV-associated cancers in both men and women when given during the preteen years.
  • Flu: More serious than a cold, flu impacts an infected person for up to two weeks, but can also lead to serious and even deadly complications, such as pneumonia. A flu vaccination is needed annually as the flu strains change and, while there is still a low risk of catching the flu even with the shot, patients will often experience a milder case of the flu if vaccinated.

Surprisingly, given that science and research have validated the safety and overwhelming benefit of vaccines, nearly 6 in 10 parents (57%) and teens (57%) have safety concerns about vaccines. Among physicians, less than half (44%) have processes in place to remind teens or their parents about missed vaccinations. This combination shows how significant gaps can occur in the opportunity to assess and vaccinate as a vital part of preventive health.

Make a Game Plan to Get Teens Vaccinated

Annual checkups and vaccinations should be the norm, not the exception. Here are some great ways to prioritize preventive health:

  • Parents and teens: Learn more about the safety and the benefit of recommended vaccines.
    • Unity Consortium has resources available about adolescent preventive health and vaccination.
    • The CDC has available information on the vaccine schedule including recommended ages and catch-up opportunities.
    • Ensure teens have a check-up every year.
  • Immunizers: Make sure teens don’t skip annual check-ups, especially at 11-12 and 16 years of age when routine vaccines should be given.
    • Set up a reminder system to alert parents and teens to make an appointment.
    • When teens are in the office for any reason, discuss the need for immunizations so that there are no lingering concerns. Remember that the age and gender of the teen impact the conversations and communication should be tailored to that teen’s needs.
    • To support healthcare providers, Unity Consortium has developed a program accessible on their website that helps improve delivery of a confident, concise, and consistent recommendation for routinely recommended vaccines to adolescents.

A coordinated communications effort between teens, parents, and HCPs can positively impact preventive health decisions. Taking time to discuss why the things we do now, like getting immunized, can have an impact on how teens think about their health as they grow into adults and caregivers for future generations. For more information about Unity Consortium and the importance of preventive teen health strategies and vaccination visit http://www.unity4teenvax.org/.

About the survey

This survey was supported by Pfizer Inc., a member of the Unity Consortium. The survey was fielded by Harris poll from September 26 to October 7, 2016 among 506 teens aged 13-18, 515 parents with a child between the ages of 13-18, 105 pharmacists, and 405 physicians who specialized in either family practice, general practice, internal medicine, or pediatrics, were duly licensed, spent 50% or more time in outpatient practice and 80% or more time in direct patient care, see at least 250 patients, on average, in a month, and regularly see teens for well visits.
Gregory D. Zimet, PhD
Dr. Zimet is Professor of Pediatrics and Clinical Psychology in the Section of Adolescent Medicine, Department of Pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine and Co-Director of the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) Center for HPV Research. In addition, he is the immediate past-president of the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine. Dr. Zimet started investigating attitudes about vaccines for adolescents in the mid-1990s. Much of his research has involved the study of vaccine acceptance and refusal, with a primary focus over the past 15 years on behavioral and social determinants of HPV vaccination. His studies have focused on adolescents and young adults, parents of adolescents, and healthcare providers and include evaluations of vaccine communication intervention strategies. His adolescent vaccination research has included collaborations with investigators across the United States, Canada, the U.K., Australia, the Netherlands, and Malaysia.


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