Health authorities in Ireland are offering teenage girls the chance to have their HPV vaccine in March, as part of a ‘catch-up’ campaign designed to boost vaccine uptake.
Two years ago, 87% of girls in their first year of secondary school received two doses of the HPV vaccine for free. The vaccine protects against viruses responsible for most cervical cancers.
However, a social media campaign against the vaccine by a small lobby group sparked fear and uncertainty, and was followed by a decline in HPV vaccination rates to 70%.
This is significantly lower than the 86% uptake achieved by Ireland’s neighbours in the UK and has been a cause for alarm among cancer doctors and public health specialists.
Anti-vaccine campaigners claimed that the vaccine was linked to several illnesses that occur in teenager girls. Experts and health authorities have pointed out that the rare illnesses in question occur at the same rate in teenage girls who are vaccinated and those who are not.
HPV vaccines have been used in 84 countries and have a good safety record – as well as a record of reducing the number of young women with pre-cancerous cells.
Not too late
Ireland is not the first country to suffer a dip in HPV vaccine acceptance resulting from local anti-vaccine activists – a Denmark and Japan have faced similar challenges – but it finds itself in the middle of a public health crisis that could ultimately lead to avoidable deaths.
Stressing the importance of ensuring that all those eligible for the vaccine received it, Dr Brenda Corcoran, Head of the HSE Immunisation Office said: “It is not too late for girls in first year of second level school who missed out on the first dose of the HPV vaccine in September 2016 to get vaccinated with this life-saving medicine.”
In a public statement, she reminded parents and teenagers that the HPV vaccine protects against cervical cancer and saves lives.
“Cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer in women worldwide. Each year in Ireland around 300 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer and 90 die from the disease. Furthermore, every year over 6,500 Irish women are diagnosed with precancerous abnormalities of the cervix caused by HPV and need hospital treatment. All cervical cancers are linked to high risk Human Papillomavirus (HPV) types.”
Australia was one of the first countries to introduce HPV vaccine in 2007 and the vaccine has already prevented one in every two cervical cancers and they have seen a decrease of up to 75% in rates of pre-cancer of the cervix over the last ten years. Similar results have been reported from Sweden and Scotland.
Dr Corcoran addressed the false rumours claiming that the vaccine is harmful: “You may have heard stories that the HPV vaccine is unsafe and causes harm. This is simply untrue. Over 220,000 girls in Ireland have safely received the HPV vaccine, along with 100 million people worldwide in countries like the United States, Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand. Not one of these people anywhere in the world has been medically proven to have had a long-term side effect from getting the vaccine.”
She said parents were bound to have questions about the vaccine given some of the negative publicity spread by a small group but she urged the public to listen to experts and their health professionals.
“Many parents are genuinely afraid to consent to HPV vaccination because of the stories they have heard about the safety of the vaccine,” Dr Corcoran said. “Despite the scare stories, there are no ‘alternative facts’ that stand up to even the most basic medical or scientific scrutiny.”
At the heart of these stories are episodes of ill-health among a small number of teenage girls that occurred around the same time period as the HPV vaccination campaign. These illnesses occur at the same rate in people who have not had the vaccine.
“Unfortunately, there are some naturally occurring conditions that can make teenage girls unwell, but the World Health Organisation and every national regulatory body in the world have said 100% that the HPV vaccine does not cause any of the alleged long-term conditions,” Dr Corcoran said. “In fact, international studies have found that the alleged side effects are just as common in people who have never received the HPV vaccine at all. The regulatory authorities in the US, the UK, Australia and Ireland report that the overwhelming majority of side effects seen are mild conditions commonly seen when you vaccinate teenagers.”
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