No scientific theory to back up scaremongering over HPV vaccine

There is no evidence to show that the illnesses and syndromes highlighted in Ireland by concerned parents were caused by the HPV vaccine, writes Victoria White

No scientific theory to back up scaremongering over HPV vaccine

IF IT were my daughter I’d be just the same. If my little girl suddenly stopped playing her Gaelic and hockey and stopped studying and socialising I’d look everywhere for answers.

If she’d just had the HPV vaccine I might pin it on that, especially if I found out that other girls were in a similar condition having recently had the vaccine.

I would expect to be given a respectful hearing by health professionals and politicians.

That doesn’t mean I would be right. That doesn’t mean the health policy should reflect my opinion.

That doesn’t mean the media should give my views an airing without countering them with a similarly emotional tale of a young girl left motherless because of cervical cancer, for instance.

That certainly doesn’t mean that opposition politicians, from Finian Mc Grath (Independent) to Gerry Adams (Sinn Féin) to Maureen O’Sullivan (Independent) to Michael Moynihan (Fianna Fáil), should be clambering over each other to air my fears in the Dáil chamber.

It certainly doesn’t mean that politicians such as Michael Moynihan should call for the HPV vaccine to be at least temporarily withdrawn and it sure as hell doesn’t mean that as minister

with responsibility for disabilities, Finian McGrath, should categorise 30% of reactions to the HPV vaccine as “very serious”. I know he’s since said he “cocked up”. He spoke movingly on Tuesday of the death of his wife from metastatic breast cancer in 2009.

That doesn’t solve the question of why he took the anti-HPV vaccine position in the first place.

You wouldn’t have to be much of a total cynic to think he took the position for political gain. Ditto Maureen O’Sullivan, Gerry Adams, Senator Fidelma Healy-Eames (Independent) and Senator Paschal Mooney (FF).

It wouldn’t take a genius to work out what these politicians have in common. They are “anti-establishment” as the establishment is now constituted.

McGrath’s only problem was that he momentarily forgot that, as a Government minister, he is now part of the establishment. And it’s quite a trick to sit on establishment and anti-establishment stools at the same time. Only a few can manage it.

McGrath was doing fine until it came to an issue of life and death like the HPV vaccine when he plunged between the stools like a ripe pear.

The mess which has been left on the floor will be cleaned by others. By his government colleagues in Fine Gael, by the HSE and ultimately by the women, if there are any, who will develop cervical cancer in the future because the temporary endorsement of the

anti-vaccine stance by a government minister working within the Department of Health stopped her parents consenting to her having the vaccine.

Facts are tedious but they are what matter when it comes to health.

The World Health Organization says the vaccine is between 90% and 100% effective against the human papillomavirus, which causes 70% of cervical cancers and between 75% and 80% of anal cancers. Receiving the vaccination reduces a girl’s risk of developing cervical cancer by more than 70%.

Two hundred and seventy million doses of the vaccine in the form of Gardasil or Cervarix have been administered around the world and the chance of an anaphylactic reaction is reckoned by the WHO to be 1.7 per million.

There is no evidence to show that the illnesses and syndromes highlighted in Ireland by concerned parents were caused by the HPV vaccine.

The 2015 documentary Cervical Cancer Vaccine — Is it safe? which was screened on TV3, stated that parents were certain that the HPV vaccine (Gardasil) was the cause of their daughters’ otherwise unexplained illness but did not make clear that there were no grounds for this certainty.

It is worrying that one of the girls interviewed described said “I know 100% that it was the vaccine did this to me”, because the poor girl is now carrying, as well as her illness, the conviction that it was avoidable. Her poor parents are living with the unthinkable guilt of believing they signed away their precious little girl’s life as she knew it.

As Dr Kevin Connolly explained on the documentary, the most likely scientific relationship

between the vaccine and the girls’ illnesses is “co-incidence”. And “co-incidence” is just not satisfying to a devastated parent who is looking for answers.

As a parent of a teenager with autism, I know all about the power of co-incidence, however. It was the co-incidence of the administration of the MMR vaccine and the onset of the symptoms of autism in many toddlers which fuelled the success of the disgraced Dr Andrew Wakefield in linking the condition to the vaccine.

I never suffered from those fears because my son is among the perhaps one in 100,000 whose autistic symptoms developed after the age of three — at four years and four months, to be precise. Through the activities group for ASD kids which I run in South Dublin with a friend, Open Spectrum, I meet hundreds of parents of ASD kids and I have never met any who believe the MMR caused their child’s autism.

The conspiracy theory makes most of us very angry indeed. As highlighted by Cork ASD mother Fiona O’Leary with Autistic Rights Together, it pictures people with autism as damaged goods rather than people with differing levels of disability who must be accepted for who they are.

But still the MMR theory persists because it is emotionally plausible. Something has happened to your child. Why not blame the State and its big needle: “The System”?

The best-selling author and parent of an ASD kid, David Mitchell, who lives in West Cork, recently told the Irish Independent that he kept “an open mind” on the link between autism and the MMR: “When you meet parents who describe how their child was catastrophically affected it’s impossible not to take on board what they say.”

WHAT about the one-in-20 kids with measles who get pneumonia, the one-in-1,000 who get swelling of the brain, the one or two-in-1,000 who die? The disease has had a resurgence in both Europe and the US because not enough kids are vaccinated. One third of US parents believe the MMR causes autism.

Plausible theories with no scientific basis are dangerous. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was right in 2015 to reply to opposition calls for the HPV vaccine to be withdrawn with the words: “Scares around people using vaccines really do cost lives.”

The challenge for voters in Ireland today is to resist the temptation of plausible theories which blame a fictional “establishment” for everything from auto-immune disease to dirty water and vote for politicians who stick with the facts.

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