FARGO — A larger portion of North Dakota teens are getting their first dose of a cancer-preventing shot, but health officials want the number of people who are up to date on the vaccination to rise, health experts said.

Nearly 77% of North Dakota’s teenagers between 13 and 17 years old received the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine last year for the first time, up from about 73% in 2017, according to the North Dakota Department of Health.

That’s higher than the national average of 68%, according to numbers released last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. North Dakota ranked sixth in the U.S. for teens who get the shot for the first time, and fourth for children who are up to date on the vaccine, the CDC said.

“Data shows that most North Dakota teens are starting the HPV vaccine series, however, more work needs to be done to be sure that teens are completing the series,” Molly Howell, immunization program manager with the state Health Department, said in a statement.

Like North Dakota, Minnesota saw 77% of teens receive first-time HPV vaccinations in 2018, the CDC said.

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HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S., the CDC said. Researchers estimate 9 out of 10 people will contract HPV.

Though most will not notice the virus, more than 33,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed each year with a HPV-caused cancer, the North Dakota Health Department said. Howell told The Forum that 76 people in North Dakota were diagnosed with HPV-associated cancers each year from 2011 through 2015.

The HPV vaccine prevents a number of genital cancers, including cervical, anal and penile. It was first recommended in 2006, Howell said. North Dakota schools do not require students to get the vaccination, but researchers found it has lowered the number of HPV infections and cancers worldwide since the vaccine was first introduced, Howell said.

About 64% of North Dakota teens have received all of the recommended HPV doses, Howell said. Only half of the teens in the U.S. are up to date on the vaccination, the CDC said.

There are misconceptions about the vaccine, including that it is unsafe and will encourage children to have sex earlier, said Jessica Leitch, immunization coordinator for Fargo Cass Public Health. But research from the World Health Organization has shown the shot to be safe, and it is approved by the Federal Drug Administration.

The vaccination is not associated with increased markers of sexual activity, according to research published by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“I feel like if you told people there was an immunization for breast cancer, they would be lining people up for it,” Leitch said.

The number of North Dakota teens vaccinated for HPV has increased dramatically over the last decade. In Cass County, almost 82% of teens had received their first dose and 71% got their second, Leitch said. Fewer people are tying the vaccine to the myths associated with the shot and instead are realizing it prevents cancer, she added.

“I think awareness is becoming more and more prevalent,” Leitch said.

Children are encouraged to get the HPV vaccination first between the ages of 11 and 12, then again six to 12 months later, according to the CDC. Those who get it after age 15 should receive three doses, Howell said.

The CDC voted earlier this year to recommend the vaccine to some people up to the age of 45.