Social inequalities in adolescent human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination: a test of fundamental cause theory

Soc Sci Med. 2013 Apr;82:115-25. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2012.12.020. Epub 2012 Dec 27.


A unique contribution of the fundamental cause theory of health disparities is its ability to account for the persistence of disparities in health and mortality, despite changes in the mechanisms that are relevant at any given time. Few studies, however, have investigated how such mechanisms are created or operate. Examining the introduction of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine for adolescents-a treatment aimed at preventing cervical and other cancers that typically emerge in mid- to late-adulthood-we empirically trace such a disparity-generating mechanism that is in the process of being latently created, testing whether socioeconomic status (SES) and racial/ethnic disparities exist for several facets of vaccination receipt: knowledge about the vaccine, receipt of a health professional recommendation to vaccinate, and initiation and completion of the three-shot vaccination series. Analyses of 2008, 2009, and 2010 United States National Immunization Survey-Teen data (n = 41,358) reveal disparities consistent with fundamental cause theory, particularly for vaccine knowledge and receipt of a health professional recommendation. While parental knowledge is a prerequisite to adolescent vaccine uptake, low SES and racial/ethnic minority parents have significantly lower odds of knowing about the vaccine. Receipt of a health professional's recommendation to vaccinate is strongly associated with vaccine uptake, however the odds of receiving a recommendation are negatively associated with low SES and black racial/ethnic status. Our findings inform fundamental cause theory by illustrating how disparities in distinct stages of the uptake of new treatments may contribute to reproducing existing health disparities-and, in this case of adolescent HPV vaccination, may maintain future disparities in cervical cancer among adult populations.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • African Americans / statistics & numerical data*
  • Empirical Research
  • Female
  • Health Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice / ethnology
  • Healthcare Disparities / ethnology*
  • Humans
  • Immunization Schedule
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Models, Theoretical
  • Papillomavirus Infections / ethnology*
  • Papillomavirus Infections / prevention & control*
  • Papillomavirus Vaccines / administration & dosage*
  • Parents / psychology
  • Physician-Patient Relations
  • Social Class*
  • United States
  • Vaccination / statistics & numerical data*


  • Papillomavirus Vaccines