More than 30 organisations, including leading health, children and women’s groups, have come together to express their alarm at recent reports that uptake of HPV vaccination in Ireland has fallen to as low as 50% among teenage girls.
Uptake was close to 90% two years ago before a small group of anti-vaccine activists began a social media campaign which spread fear about the safety of the vaccine. The claims have been thoroughly investigated by national and European experts, giving civil society organisations the confidence to strongly support the vaccination programme.
The groups have formed a ‘HPV Vaccination Alliance’, warning that more than 40 women will die as a result of people opting out of the national programme which makes HPV vaccination freely available to adolescent girls. A further 100 girls will need life-changing treatment while 1,000 more will need invasive therapy.
Back to school
The move is timed to coincide with the new school year when first-year secondary school girls (typically aged around 12-13 years) will be offered the vaccine to protect against cervical cancer and other issues caused by human papilloma viruses.
This year more than 90 Irish women will die from cervical cancer and those who survive will need intensive treatment, such as surgery, radiotherapy and/or chemotherapy, to help them overcome this invasive disease. This treatment almost always results in infertility – which is part of the reason women’s right and women’s health groups are speaking out.
The Alliance has drawn up a Contract Against Cancer under which signatory organisations affirm that they:
- Endorse HPV vaccination as a proven and safe way to protect against cancers which can destroy and end lives.
- Realise their obligations to do all we can to protect health and wellbeing by ensuring the facts prevail when it comes to HPV vaccination.
- Pledge to raise awareness of HPV vaccination and its benefits in stopping cancer and saving lives.
The ability to spare children and adults the devastation of a cancer diagnosis can become a reality, the Alliance said, adding that members believe they have a duty to act urgently to prevent future hardship and save lives.
‘When it comes to HPV vaccination, the jury is in – the vaccine is safe and saves lives. The Irish Cancer Society has been vocal on this issue for quite some time,’ said Donal Buggy, Head of Services and Advocacy at the Irish Cancer Society.
He said it was natural that parents are fearful when they hear claims about a vaccine but the claims have been shown to be without foundation. The real dangers are cancer-causing viruses.
‘It’s terrible that young girls get sick, but to link their illness to a life-saving vaccine when all the research shows no link is dangerous and threatens lives,’ he said. ‘Large studies looking at 3-4 million women, vaccinated and unvaccinated, found no evidence whatsoever that HPV vaccination causes any immune or nervous system disorder. The World Health Organisation and the European Medicines Agency have concluded that the injection is safe and has no link to any serious illnesses.’
He said that what the evidence shows is that the vaccine prevents cervical cancer. ‘That’s why the decision parents make now on the vaccine can have serious consequences for their daughters.’
Orla O’Connor, Director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI), said the Council’s members had voted to fully support all efforts around increasing the uptake of HPV vaccination. ‘We see this issue as hugely concerning for women’s health,’ she said. ‘Not only does cervical cancer kill 90 women in Ireland each year, it leaves many more infertile due to the side effects of harsh and invasive medical treatment for the disease. These are lasting consequences which young women – and their parents – will have to live with for the rest of their lives.’
She said no woman should have the choice of having a biological family taken away from them because they did not receive a safe and life-saving vaccine. ‘That’s why it’s important that we do all we can to ensure the public know all the facts about HPV vaccination.’
This was echoed by Tanya Ward, Chief Executive of the Children’s Rights Alliance. ‘We are calling on the parents of Ireland to consent to the vaccine to protect the health of their daughters. The vaccine is free, safe and may save their daughters’ lives,’ she said. ‘We have joined forces with the partners of the HPV Vaccination Alliance to encourage uptake in the coming school year and going forwards. We need to separate facts from fiction and ensure the message is spread that this vaccine is potentially life-saving.’