Cancer experts and public health specialists fear false rumours spread on social media are responsible for sharp drop in vaccine uptake
The HPV vaccine protects against most forms of cervical cancer. It has already saved countless lives and, with more teenagers than ever being offered the jab for free, it has the potential to spare millions of women from this disease in decades to come.
But, in some countries, there is a problem. Like many other safe and effective vaccines, the HPV vaccine has been the subject of scaremongering by a tiny but vocal minority of alternative health activists.
Denmark and Japan have seen a fall in vaccination rates due to unfounded rumours about the vaccine. The latest country to be hit with this anti-vaccine campaign is Ireland. A small lobby group is running a social media campaign against the vaccine – and, sadly, it appears to be working.
HPV vaccination rates in Ireland have fallen from 87% to 70% in one year.
Health authorities and the Irish Cancer Society are horrified. The implications are clear: if fewer teenage girls have the vaccine now, the number of cases of cervical cancer in women in the years to come will be higher.
While it might be reassuring that most girls are still following medical advice and having the vaccine, the trend is in the wrong direction. Ireland has been on course to follow in the footsteps of countries like Scotland and Australia where rates of pre-cancer of the cervix have fallen by as much as 50% in the 10 years since HPV vaccination began.
So what is the rumour that is causing such havoc?
Well, it’s really a collection of claims bundled together. Opponents of the HPV vaccine programme cite cases where girls developed various symptoms such as chronic pain and nausea in the period after having the vaccine.
“While there is no doubt of the severity of the illnesses experienced by many young girls – and we all sympathise with the very distressing situations these families find themselves in – their fears over the vaccine are unfounded,” says Dr Robert O’Connor, Head of Research at the Irish Cancer Society.
As Dr O’Connor highlights in a recent newspaper article, small numbers of people (boys and girls) are diagnosed with these kinds of symptoms during their teenage years. This was the case before and after the introduction of the HPV vaccine programme.
“These illnesses existed in males and females of various ages long before the public vaccination programme started in 2010 and, unfortunately, continue to develop in vaccinated and unvaccinated people at the same rate,” he says.
Last year, anti-vaccine campaigners said an independent review of the vaccine’s safety was in order. At the request of Denmark, a group of experts at European Medicines Agency then published a review of the two most common claims made by those with concerns about the vaccine. They found there was no link. It was, quite simply, an unfortunate coincidence.
For most, this is reassuring. But some who are determined to tear down the cancer vaccination programme, continue their campaign. As they have every year since 2010, schools began inviting girls to have the vaccine in September. The anti-vaccine group stepped up their campaign on social media – much to the frustration of anti-cancer advocates.
Cervical cancer is a horrible killer of young women. Health choices cannot B based on random conspiracist FB posts. https://t.co/mpOH48j7ja
— Dr Robert O’Connor (@DrRobertOConnor) September 1, 2016
Ireland’s Health Service Executive has been at pains to highlight the real risks of cervical cancer – and the safety of the vaccine.
“The HPV vaccine is safe and is a real life saver,” says the head of the HSE National Immunisation Office, Dr Brenda Corcoran. “In 2016 more than 90 Irish women will die from cervical cancer and a further 280 will need intensive treatment, such as surgery, radiotherapy and/or chemotherapy, to help them overcome invasive cervical cancer.”
Others have spoken up in support of vaccination. The Irish Cancer Society – which, among other groups, previously campaigned to have the HPV vaccine programme funded by the government – has stepped forward to reassure parents.
They are running public meetings to inform parents about HPV, cervical cancer and the vaccine. Dr Matt Hewitt, Consultant Obstetrician and Gynaecologist at Cork University Maternity Hospital notes that 220,000 girls in Ireland (and over 80 million people worldwide) have had the HPV vaccine.
“As someone who sees the effects of cervical cancer on my patients daily, I hope the HPV vaccine will make my job virtually redundant,” he says. “Women’s lives will be saved by this vaccine, so it is imperative that families have the facts about the injection before making up their minds over whether their daughters receive it.
Professor Margaret Stanley, a vaccines and immunology expert at the University of Cambridge in the UK has also contributed to the public events. “The HPV vaccine is safe and will save lives – the evidence shows this,” she says, pointing to large studies of more than three million women that found “no evidence whatsoever” of severe side-effects. “The World Health Organisation and the European Medicines Agency concluded that the injection is safe and has no link to any serious illness.”
Role of the media
While newspaper editorials in the Irish Times voice concern over the long-term impact of declining HPV vaccination rates, social media – and some local media – provide a platform for sowing doubt in the minds of busy parents asked to complete a consent form so that their daughters can have the vaccine.
Ireland finds itself on the frontline of a battle for hearts and minds. In the end, parents will decide what happens next.