INE Gael TD, Kate O’Connell, has a knack for painting word pictures. Remember her verbal assault, during the recent Fine Gael leadership contest, on the Leo Varadkar-supporting “choir boys”?
Reading a transcript from the joint Oireachtas Committee on Health — during a discussion on the controversial human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine — she painted another vivid picture.
“If we do not vaccinate correctly, many girls who are eight years old, and who are walking around in flowery skirts, will be dead by the time they are 40. These are shock tactics, but it is so serious that an image should be created of girls or boys walking around and the impact of not taking up the vaccine,” the deputy told a meeting of the committee in May.
The HPV vaccine is offered to Irish girls in their first year of secondary school, because it can prevent cancer of the cervix (seven out of 10 cervical cancers can be prevented by the vaccine). 100m people worldwide have been vaccinated, including 220,000 girls in Ireland. In countries with high HPV vaccine uptake, such as Australia and Scotland, pre-cancerous growths of the cervix have been reduced by more than half.
Almost every day, we read of potential cancer cures being developed and what great hope they might bring. The incredible thing here is that a cure is not necessary, because there is a prevention. Imagine being able to prevent your child from getting cancer in later life?
And our government, having looked at the available medical evidence, has offered to pay for it to be administered to protect our girls and, hopefully, in time, for it to be given to our boys.
Unfortunately, the vaccination campaign, which began here in 2010, has been hijacked. The Health Service Executive warned recently that it will take years to repair the damage caused by misinformation. The figures show just how much damage has been done, with half of eligible girls refusing the vaccine in the 2016/2017 academic year. Health Minister, Simon Harris, correctly called out the “uninformed nonsense” that has been the cause of this drop, which interferes with medical efforts to save lives.
Projecting forward, the non-uptake (presumably led by parents, given the young age of the girls) will result in a minimum of 40 of the girls dying, another 100 needing life-saving treatment, and 1,000 needing invasive therapy.
Just to bandy about some more frightening figures about, this year alone up to 420 people in Ireland will be diagnosed with a cancer caused by HPV infection. Almost 300 of these will be cervical cancer cases. 90 women die will from cervical cancer. The Irish Cancer Society state that a further 6,500 women will need hospital treatment to remove pre-cancerous growths in their cervix caused by HPV. As well as being one of the leading causes of cervical cancer, HPV is also a contributory factor in throat, mouth, tongue, and tonsil cancers.
HPV is also associated with the development of penile cancer, as well as causing genital warts in both men and women.
With these kinds of figures, imagine the outcry if the Government had, instead, taken the decision not to fund the vaccination campaign?
Despite the present backlash, the Health Information and Quality Authority (HIQA) was asked, last month, to assess the feasibility of extending the HPV cancer vaccine to boys, as happens in other countries.
The Irish Cancer Society has been crystal clear on this issue for some time now. Donal Buggy, head of services and advocacy, pointed out, on Wednesday, that large studies, looking at three to four million women, vaccinated and unvaccinated, found no evidence whatsoever that HPV vaccination causes any immune or nervous system disorder. Furthermore, the World Health Organisation and the European Medicines Agency have concluded that the injection is safe and has no link to any serious illnesses.
Mr Buggy was speaking at the launch of the newly-formed HPV Vaccination Alliance, which involves 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 Womens Council of Ireland, Barnardos, and the Children’s Rights Alliance are all advocating that the vaccine be taken up.
But this campaign will, no doubt, simply harden the resolve of the anti-vaxxers — their collective spines will be stiffened by all these “so called experts” getting together and telling them what to think.
Regret, the group which says it represents 400 girls adversely affected by the HPV vaccine, has proven very effective in sowing doubt in the minds of anxious parents, using social media to particular effect.
There have also been protests at school gates, as HSE teams go in to vaccinate, and anti-vax leaflets have been left in places like school-uniform shops.
Clearly, there are parents who sincerely believe their daughters have been damaged by the vaccine, with life-changing effects from conditions such as chronic fatigure syndrome. But the fact remains that while the science proves the effectiveness of the vaccine, it has found no link to these ‘chronic’ symptoms.
There is also the disturbing fact that this group, Regret, according to some very good journalistic work by Susan Mitchell, of the Sunday Business Post, has repeatedly refused to answer questions about its finances, about who is responsible for overseeing the money it raises, and to provide a copy of its accounts.
ut back to that Oireachtas Committee meeting in May, which was addressed by Dr Jerome Coffey, chairperson designate of the National Cancer Registry Board. He said that much of the HPV debate has been based on belief “and what people who may not have been highly health literate, or scientifically literate, felt was the case.”
Vaccination, he told the TDs and senators, “is important and it works”.
At the same Oireachtas Committee, in June, HSE director general, Tony O’Brien, accused the anti-vax campaigners of engaging in “emotional terrorism”, which could place thousands of young girls at risk of a largely preventable illness, later in life.
That is exceptionally strong language by a senior health official, but it highlights how seriously the health service takes the high fall-off in rates.
Kate O’Connell’s image of the innocent young girls in their flowery skirts points to the other ‘problem’ that certain groups have with the HPV vaccine. For some, the vaccine is viewed as a potential gateway to earlier promiscuity, by sending the message to young girls that sexual behaviour is acceptable, or by promoting higher-risk sexual practices.
In the US, there was a serious backlash from conservative groups, when the vaccine was introduced, with all sorts of scare-mongering about what harm it might cause.
The logic, as ever, is utterly flawless: use a potentially deadly disease, transmitted by direct sexual contact, and withhold a very effective vaccine to prevent it, in order to keep girls pure. Let’s see how that works out.
It is entirely understandable that parents are worried about the HPV vaccine, with the highly effective terror tactics that are being used against it.
If you are a parent of one of the 30,000 girls who will be offered the vaccine in September, you are right to inform yourself, but do so from trusted scientific sources, such as HPV.ie.
Keep in mind the current trend that experts should be not be trusted, and also that there are many out there who are expert at sowing that distrust.