The Irish Cancer Society’s cervical cancer advisor, consultant gynaecologist, Dr Gráinne Flannelly, said vaccinated sexually active women could be “falsely reassured” that they were not at risk any more and not present themselves for screening.
There was a danger that health authorities were sending the wrong message by encouraging women who had already been exposed to the human papilloma virus (HPV) to be vaccinated, she said.
While there was strong evidence for vaccinating teens before they became sexually active, the evidence for vaccinating women already exposed to the virus was poor, she stressed.
Up to 80% of sexually active women will catch HPV at some point in their lives. In most women, the virus that can cause tumours disappears over time but some women have difficulty in getting rid of it.
The vaccine, called Gardasil, costs around €600 when GP consultations are included. It is not available on the medical card scheme, or reimbursable under community drug schemes.
Well Women Clinic chief executive, Alison Begas, said some women wanting the vaccination were having to take out loans to pay for it.
“It is quite heartbreaking that in such a prosperous country it has come to that,” she said.
“Some of the women contacting us are in their late teens and early 20s who are interested in getting the vaccination for themselves, while others are mothers in their 40s who are considering having their teenagers vaccinated,” she said.
It is recommended that the vaccine be given to girls around the age of 12 or 13.
Ireland has one of the highest rates of cervical cancer in western Europe, with 180 new cases annually and more than 70 deaths from the disease each year.
The Department of Health is examining the effectiveness of the vaccine and has asked the National Immunisation Advisory Committee to advise on its potential public health benefit.
Dr Flannelly believed the department was right to evaluate the effectiveness of the vaccine. She said that until there was stronger evidence that the vaccine protected women who were already sexually active, regular screening was the best way this group could protect themselves against the virus.
Anyone with queries about vaccination, cervical smear tests or cervical cancer can call the National Cancer Helpline on Freefone 1800 200 700.