When examining rankings on almost any topic, Kansas tends to mirror its geographic location: Somewhere in the middle.

When the state ends up at the top or bottom of any list, a closer look generally is warranted. When it is dead-last in protecting residents from a preventable disease, that closer look demands action.

Such is the case with cervical cancer, which kills some 4,000 Americans annually. To eliminate chances of contracting it, there is a safe and recommended vaccine against the human papillomavirus that causes almost every instance of cervical cancer. Three doses of the HPV vaccine are recommended for all girls and boys aged 13 to 15. Because of its proven track record, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is hoping to achieve an 80 percent HPV vaccination rate by 2020.

There is a long way to go in Kansas. As reported by the Kansas Health Institute News Service, a mere 21 percent of Kansas females ages 13 to 17 have had the three-dose regimen. Nationally, that figure is 40 percent. About 40 percent of Kansas females have had at least one HPV vaccination while the national rate is 57 percent. In both instances, Kansas ranks 50th, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That needs to change, and not just for rankings’ sake. There are lives at stake.

Fortunately, a group of health officials has launched an effort to improve the vaccination rate. KHI News Service reports partners include the Kansas Foundation for Medical Care and the University of Kansas Cancer Center.

“Kansas is not doing well, but it has been a struggle everywhere,” said Stephanie Lambert-Barth, project manager for the Kansas HPV Vaccination Project.

The struggle is caused by HPV itself. The human papillomavirus is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. The CDC says virtually all sexually active men and women contract it at some point in their lives and, in most cases, it isn’t a big deal. But for some, it becomes fatal.

National health officials claim the best time to administer the HPV vaccinations is before the individual becomes sexually active. And that is what makes it difficult to discuss for physicians and parents alike. Very few people are comfortable discussing sexual activity with a preteen or early teenager.

We can stick our heads in the sand all we want, but youngsters eventually will experience intimate relations. But from a practical standpoint, we also understand not wanting to imagine it happening very early in a child’s life. Talking about it won’t increase the likelihood by any stretch of the imagination, but we can see how the reality could appear a lot closer for adults simply by verbalizing the difficult subject.

So we have a simple suggestion: Don’t talk about. At least not with the child, unless your relationship is honest enough to handle it.

Dr. Melinda Wharton, director of the CDC’s Immunization Services Division who is in Kansas this week to assist the vaccination effort, said basically the same in the KHIN report.

“We don’t get into conversations before we give Tdap about how tetanus is spread, and we don’t talk about droplet transmission before we give the meningococcal vaccine,” Wharton said. “So there’s no reason we have to bring up sexual transmission before we give the HPV vaccine.”

The important task to accomplish is getting our children vaccinated before they become active sexually. If need be, that conversation could take place strictly between the parent and physician. If one believes “the talk” will encourage their child to have sex — don’t have that talk. Just get the HPV vaccine.

The 21-percent current vaccination rate is dreadful — and potentially deadly. Parents and doctors alike need to pay heed to the current campaign. Dead last is not the place for Kansas to be when it comes to preventing cervical cancer.

Editorial by Patrick Lowry

plowry@dailynews.net