Refusal of vaccines is one of the top health threats facing the world

Parents who don’t vaccinate are behaving in a really selfish and dangerous manner, writes Alison O’Connor.

A RATHER amazing thing has happened which we should sit back and reflect on for a few moments — both for it’s obvious implications, and those not so immediately clear. It’s a triumph of fact over fake news, and a strong push back against those who do not have our best interests at heart and who use fear as a weapon.

The uptake of the HPV vaccine against cervical cancer has risen to 70% in just over two years — after an alarming dip of 20%. The HSE deserve to be congratulated for this significant success.

A sustained campaign over a few years, in keeping with international anti vaccine sentiment and rejection of expert advice, saw our rate of uptake for this life saving vaccine fall to just under 50% at one stage. This was all the more incredible given the clear benefits of the vaccine in terms of this particular jab saving lives. Every year in Ireland around 300 women get cervical cancer and 90 women die from it. This cancer is the most common cause of death due to cancer in women aged 25 to 39 years.

Given the manner in which it was so effectively hijacked it did seriously look as if our HPV vaccination campaign, which began in 2010, might not recover and that if it did it would take years. At the time Health Minister Simon Harris called out the “uninformed nonsense” that was being pedalled about the vaccine. The then HSE director general Tony O’Brien accused the anti-vax campaigners of engaging in “emotional terrorism” that could place thousands of young girls at risk of a largely preventable illness later in life.

Then towards the end of 2017 a HPV Vaccination Alliance was formed involving more than 20 Irish organisations, including leading health, children and women’s groups — the Irish College of General Practitioners, the Irish Medical Organisation, the National Women’s Council of Ireland, Barnardos, the Children’s Rights Alliance — all advocating that the vaccine be taken up.

Crucially though one woman who might have had far more on her mind than strenuous, and at times combative campaigning, has been absolutely key in boosting the levels of vaccination and therefore saving hundreds of lives. Laura Brennan, a 26-year-old from Co Clare who is terminally ill with cervical cancer, spearheaded a campaign to boost the HPV uptake levels.

Laura said when she discovered her cancer was terminal she wanted to use her voice for good. Her joy was obvious this week at the news that seven in 10 of this year’s first year girls in secondary schools have received the first dose of the HPV vaccine and are due to receive the next dose this term.

“Every time I tell my story my hope is that it will save a life and save someone else’s family from going through what my family are going through,” explained Laura.

“And I’m thrilled people are listening — listening to the reality of what a life with cervical cancer is really like and finding out for themselves that the vaccine is safe and effective and along with cervical screening it’s the best tool we have to help us move forward towards eradicating cervical cancer.”

After the initial introduction of the vaccine here it enjoyed an uptake of more than 80% so there is a bit to go yet. It is great news that the vaccine is to be available to teenage boys from next September. On the fear front it is understandable that parents seek an answer when their children develop chronic illnesses and might land on the vaccine as a culprit. What we also have though are fundamentalist groups, mainly in the US but with a far reach, who very effectively, but wrongly, connect the vaccine with promiscuity. However there is no scientific evidence that the vaccine has been linked to these chronic illnesses suffered by young girls and all responsible, recognised sources stress this, and indeed have scientific proof of it.

It is important to put our latest HPV success story in context at home and around the world. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently listed vaccine hesitancy — the delay in acceptance or refusal of vaccines despite their availability — as one of its top 10 health threats facing the world in 2019. Facebook recently, albeit very belatedly, has announced it would aim to take action against misinformation about vaccines, following YouTube and Pinterest.

In Italy for instance there has been a surge in measles cases and vaccinations have been hotly debated there. This week Italian parents were told not to send their children to school unless they can prove they have been properly vaccinated. Proper order too. Parents who don’t vaccinate are behaving in a really selfish and dangerous manner.

Our recent evidence of the success of the HPV vaccine shows that in Ireland, at least, there is a receptiveness to effective counter arguments and well run campaigns, but worryingly, anti vaccination scenarios still exist and in some cases are expanding. No matter how many success stories there are, or scientific studies disproving myths it is a symptom of the times we are living in that often conspiracies are preferable to facts. The possibility of any link between the MMR vaccine — which protects against measles, mumps and rubella — and autism, has been repeatedly disproven. The importance of herd immunity, where we have a critical mass of resistance, 95%, which does not allow a disease to spread, has also been constantly stressed.

HOWEVER at the beginning of this month Unicef warned that global cases of measles are surging to alarming levels. In 98 countries cases of measles, which is more contagious than ebola, have increased, with numbers in Ireland increasing at the alarming rate of 244% over two years. The charity’s executive director in Ireland Peter Power rightly described it as a wake up call.

Earlier this month the HSE confirmed an outbreak of measles in north Dublin with five cases confirmed since the start of February. Just to remind ourselves measles can have serious complications including pneumonia, and two people out of every 1,000 who get measles will die. Donegal saw seven cases confirmed in February.

Highly contagious mumps is also back amongst us with 278 cases in the first six weeks of the year, compared with 43 for the same time last year.

So while we should take great heart from the success of the HPV campaign, it looks like a similar one, with similar levels of co-operation, is needed for MMR. We should also make our feelings clear to parents who selfishly put our children at risk to either keep their children at home or get them vaccinated.

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