Social media giants must stop the spread of “downright lies” by anti-vaccination groups online, the Health Minister has warned.
Simon Harris is to meet Facebook, Twitter, and Google to tackle the problem of fake news which is turning some parents against vaccination.
He pleaded with parents to steer clear of “pseudo-science and the tweet machine”, which often spreads false information about the “life-saving” HPV vaccine.
And he warned social media platforms they cannot “shirk” their responsibility to take down inaccurate vaccine warnings, which has resulted in parents not getting their children immunised against HPV-related cancers, as well as mumps, measles and rubella (MMR).
Cervical cancer campaigner Vicky Phelan joined Mr Harris in urging parents to protect their children.
She said: “Please vaccinate your children — girls and boys — against HPV related cancers. You do not want your children to get this disease. I have vaccinated my 14-year-old daughter and my son will also be getting the vaccine when he is old enough.”
The HSE was forced to launch an information campaign last year after take-up of the HPV vaccination fell to 50%. Mr Harris said he is also concerned about the number of children who are not getting the MMR vaccine.
Speaking as the HPV vaccination programme was extended to all first-year boys and girls, Mr Harris said:
This week, I intend to write to all of the social media companies and invite them to come and meet me in the Department of Health with my medical advisors with the National Immunisation Office to look at how they can play a responsible role.
He warned that social media plaforms are being used “for disinformation or misinformation, for downright lies, for suggesting that things that have no basis in science or [are] cures for cancer, we can’t stand over that”.
While Mr Harris said a number of social media companies have “stepped up to the plate”, he said not all of them have acted.
“I’m conscious that, in Ireland, we have a lot of them based here, so I think it would be particularly appropriate that I would meet with them as Health Minister and see what more they can do,” said Mr Harris. “And I think they have a responsibility in this regard, I hope they won’t shirk it.”
When the HPV vaccine was introduced for girls in 2010, anti-vaccine activists began to question the safety of the injection, claiming it caused an increase in cases of postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), a condition that increases the heart rate making the person feel faint and dizzy.
They also linked the vaccination to complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS) — a form of chronic pain that usually affects an arm or a leg.
However, there is no scientific evidence in Ireland or in any other country that the HPV vaccine causes any long-term medical condition.
Clinical trials have shown HPV vaccines are extremely safe, and that potential allergic reactions and possible side effects are mild and extremely rare.
Mr Harris said: “If your car was broken down, you wouldn’t let anyone fix it other than a mechanic. You wouldn’t send your child to school to be taught by anyone other than a teacher. You really need to get medical advice from medical professionals.”
He also expressed concern about the fall in uptake rates of the MMR vaccine.
He said that, for ‘herd immunity’, rates need to be at around 95%, but it is now at 91%.
“The message to parents is very clear,” he said. “Please make sure your child’s immunisation schedule is up to date.”
Mr Harris added that he would be calling on all TDs and senators to back a cross- party motion, due to come before the Oireachtas in September, supporting the childhood immunisation program and the HPV vaccine programme.