TERRY PRONE: Medical advice from bishop falls flat from his higher moral ground

Bishop Phonsie Cullinan said Gardasil is only 70% safe, however, the worst that can be said against the vaccine is that it isn’t 100% effective, writes Terry Prone.

DEAR Bishop Cullinan,

Unlike most of what you’ve experienced in the last few days, this isn’t an attack. It’s a free gift of professional advice, because I figure you may not have access to a good media trainer. The Catholic Hierarchy, which once embraced media training, backed away from it over the last 30 years. Which is a pity, because the church veers between two choices: 1) being absent or 2) face-planting through lack of applicable skills.

In the absence of objective professional analysis of your media outings in the last week, the chances are that the feedback you’ve received has been wildly contrasting. At one end, you’ve had the minister being restrained in his condemnation of what you said and the HSE’s Paul Connors rather less restrained in his. At the other end of the continuum, no doubt individual members of the faithful have come up to you, shaken you warmly by the hand and told you that you’re SO right about Gardasil. No doubt you’ve also received emails and texts along the same lines, with many of them adding the advice that you’re not to pay any attention to commentary in mass media. The temptation for you will be to dismiss the former and cleave to the latter. Not a good idea. Some media reaction was hostile because you’re a Catholic bishop, but most of it was because reporters and columnists genuinely believe you endangered young women. And the people reaching you to praise you for what you said are mostly the people who approved of you in advance of your saying anything and likewise disapproved of the HPV vaccine. First principle of good communications: Don’t preach to the converted. Waste of energy.

If you’re going to come out again on media on the HPV vaccine or another issue in the future, a little research would come in handy. What you chose to talk about last week was a life and death issue. Any 13- or 14-year-old girl whose parents, based on your input, decide against having her vaccinated, is more likely to die of a preventable virus. No, no. Hold on. Listen to me. I know you said that these girls shouldn’t be having random promiscuous sex and I appreciate you didn’t use such judgmental terms, but that was the burden of your tune, correct? Now, just think about this. Let’s say a mother and father, listening to you this week, decided not to vaccinate their daughter. Let’s say that girl lives a life of Victorian chastity. Let’s say she gets married, without knowing that her husband, even once in his past, had sex with someone who was HPV infected. The girl who marries him may die because she’s not vaccinated. Cervical cancer isn’t a good death. Now, I know you’ll say that smear tests are important, and you’re right. But if she’s never had sex with anybody but her husband, she may believe she needn’t bother having a smear test? You’d need to have interesting reliable data on the real risk, not what you personally think is the risk.

The fact is that, in every county in Ireland, this week, women are dying from cervical cancer. Women with families. Women who are suffering enough without having their suffering weighted by implicit judgments of their behaviour long years ago. The writer Terry Pratchett, writing about the Alzheimer’s disease from which he suffered before his death, took issue with the idea that “affliction is somehow a penance for an unknown transgression”. Bishop, you need to be careful that you’re not understood as saying that the affliction of cervical cancer is a penance for sexual transgression. I know you didn’t actually say that, but it’s a logical inference from what you did say.

By the way, you also left the impression abroad that Gardasil is only 70% safe. Now, the worst that can be said against the vaccine is that it isn’t 100% effective. But that’s crucially different from saying it’s not safe.

Of course it’s your right to promulgate chastity. The key thing, though, if you want to interest young teenagers in avoiding sexual activity, is this. Research has established that programmes promoting chastity and waiting until later for sex do not work. They just don’t. Passionate purity pledges don’t deliver the outcomes sought, and they protect poorly against cancer-causing viruses. So you might look at that again.

On the topic of doing your research, one of the things you said when you were on The Tonight Show with Matt Cooper and Ivan Yates was that Japan had given up Gardasil. This isn’t true. The Japanese Government, pressured by the anti-Vaxx movement, has stopped recommending Gardasil, but it would seem that the vaccination is still available in Japan to anyone who wants it. However, picking one country that’s not enthusiastic about a vaccine and presenting that as proving the vaccine is flawed is like staying that because Saudi Arabia isn’t gone on Catholicism, Catholicism must be a bad religion.

Now, if you’d undergone good media training, one of the essential points they’d have raised with you is picking the programmes that best reach your chosen audience. If, for example, you want to reach 13- and 14-year-olds to tell them to be chaste, The Tonight Show is not your preferred showcase, honestly. Nothing against Ivan and Matt, but they wouldn’t attract that many viewers in their early teens.

Why you decided to go on this programme, as distinct from a dozen others, is mystifying, particularly when any half decent media watcher would have told you that Matt Cooper has a rake of female mini Coopers in his family for whom he has protective instincts that make the average lion king look parentally apathetic. He was inevitably going to bellow long accusatory sentences at you. And where were you, anyway? God love you, you were somewhere else entirely. You were present only in a stilted picture and your voice making conciliatory noises in Cooper’s direction while he rolled over you like a Panzer.

HERE’S another piece of good media advice for free. It’s just about OK, if you’re a media pro with good landline, ideally an ISDN line, to do an interview by phone with a TV programme. It’s not even nearly OK if you’re a newcomer to media advancing a controversial viewpoint, to go on a TV programme by phone. You should have been in studio doing a face-to-face interview, presenting and defending your data.

You will remember the old Catholic system of “the devil’s advocate”? That’s what media interviewers do; probe your thesis robustly. Before you subject yourself to them again, could I suggest you re-examine your thesis that girls who know vaccination will prevent them from getting cervical cancer are likely to become promiscuous. If you have evidence, that would be great. If you don’t, how about you hold off from insulting a whole generation of 12-year-olds?

Yours sincerely, Terry.

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