There has been a 29% drop in the uptake of the free Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) vaccination programme for girls in County Clare since it commenced in 2010, according to figures released by the HSE.
Provisional figures show that the uptake of the vaccine in the county is 10% above the national average at just slightly below 60%, but this has fallen from 89% since the vaccine programme was first introduced.
This reduction is something that has not been helped by the comments made by, and later retracted, by Bishop of Waterford Alphonsus Cullinan, who is originally from Lahinch, according to a HSE spokesperson.
Bishop Cullinan was quoted in the media last week suggesting that the vaccine would encourage promiscuity. In an interview with WLR (Waterford Local Radio), he preached abstinence, stating the vaccine was “lulling teenage girls into a false sense of security”.
“We have to do better than giving our boys condoms and our girls injections,” he said.
In other reports, he suggested that the vaccine was only 70% safe, which the HSE has categorically said is untrue.
According to Clare resident Dr Ann Hogan, the principal medical officer for the Mid West Community Health Organisation, “The vaccine is safe. It doesn’t cause long-term side effects, it has been studied extensively by international authorities and millions of doses have been given worldwide.
We have evidence in other countries where the vaccine has been used for longer than here that it is actually working in reducing cases of pre-cancers”.
In a public statement, Bishop Cullinan apologised for “contributing to any misinformation, or indeed for causing upset to anyone, concerning use of the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) vaccines”.
“My intervention was in response to concerns which I had received about HPV vaccines from parents wishing to make the best health decision on behalf of their children and from young people alike. My intention was solely motivated to protect people from the HPV.
“I was not fully informed about the vaccination programme and I can see now how HPV vaccines can contribute greatly to lowering the rate of cervical cancer. As I have learnt, possession of full information is paramount on this vital health issue”.
Dr Hogan explained that there are about 200 strains of HPV and the vaccine used nationally protects against two of the cancer causing strains, which between them cause 70% of cases of cancer of the cervix.
“About 280 women a year are diagnosed with cancer of the cervix in Ireland and about 90 women die every year of cancer of the cervix. HPV is really the only cause of cancer in the cervix, it causes 99-point something percent of cancers of the cervix,” she said.
Dr Hogan insists it is safe, adding that misinformation being spread through social and mainstream media has impacted the uptake of the vaccine.
“It is unfortunate that he [Bishop Cullinan] made those comments because all this kind of negative publicity, even though it has been retracted, it really is unhelpful. It fuels the doubt, unfortunately and even though something is retracted, people who hear the original message don’t hear the retraction,” she said.
“The uptake all over the country was really good. The main problem is all the publicity that has been given to people talking about long-term side effects from the vaccine. People have been telling stories and they have been spread through social media, and they have got quite a bit of coverage in mainstream media, complaining that girls have suffered long-term damage, mainly pain, weakness, tiredness, chronic fatigue, those kinds of things. There is absolutely no scientific evidence that the vaccine causes any long-term side effects,” she said.
She explained that, like all vaccines, you can get soreness around the site of the injection immediately afterwards.
“You can be sore for a couple of days, you may run a slight temperature for a couple of days, headaches; it is mild illness and it wouldn’t stop anyone going to school or work. The vaccine has been studied extensively and there is no scientific evidence that it causes any long-term side effects,” she reiterated.
When the vaccine was introduced, she said it came against a background of public outcry. One of those campaigning to introduce the vaccine was Councillor Mary Howard.
“From the word go, I was a huge advocate and I really pushed that this vaccination programme be introduced and I appeal to parents to go and do the research. There is a lot of scaremongering and I find it unconscionable and very upsetting listening to the scaremongering. I would appeal to parents that the HSE are giving out solid and scientifically-based information and ask them to read it and do their own research,” she said.
She added that she is “very concerned” that the uptake has reduced drastically” in the last couple of years.
“I appeal to parents to make an informed decision. We have very few vaccines, if any, for cancer and one in three of us is going to get cancer at some stage in our lives. As someone who has lost both parents to cancer, I think we are being very naive to say ‘no’ without doing the research and I would hate to think of the consequences. If I was a parent and if I was a mother, I would absolutely 100% have my daughter vaccinated,” she said.
In County Clare, the uptake was between 86% and 89% for the first five years of the programme, higher than the national average at that time, which was between 84% and 87%.
In 2015 and 2016, it decreased to 76% in Clare, while nationally it stood at 72%. The final uptake figures for the 2016-2017 programme are not yet available but the provisional uptake figure for Clare is currently coming in at less than 60%, compared with 50% nationally.
“The school vaccination team is visiting secondary schools at present to deliver the first dose of the 2017-2018 programme. Uptake of the first dose is around 60%. We expect this to increase following mop-up clinics, where students who could not be vaccinated on the day the team was in the school will be vaccinated,” a spokesperson for the HSE said.
To find out more, visit www.HPV.ie, the world health organisation’s website or the American CDC website.