The World Health Organisation has pledged to support Irish health bodies in combating a campaign of misinformation on the HPV vaccine.
Robb Butler, head of immunisation at the WHO’s European branch, said he welcomed the most recent data, which showed that the number of vaccinations had stabilised, but that the steep decline in uptake after a public campaign against it was “alarming”.
“The victims of the decisions made today will be those whose families are affected by cervical cancer that could have been prevented,” Mr Butler told a HSE conference in Dublin yesterday.
“The decline is particularly alarming given Ireland boasted the world’s most successful HPV vaccination programme just a few years ago.”
He said that the country would see a fall in cervical cancer rates over the next ten years because of the initial success of the vaccination programme. He said this would be followed by an increase in this type of cancer caused by the drop in vaccination rates in the past 18 months, however.
“The crisis in confidence needs to be dealt with to save lives and I think there should be more communication on the severity and burden of cervical cancer. We in the WHO stand with the many health bodies and agencies in Ireland in their ongoing efforts to see this worrisome trend reversed and the campaign of misinformation ceased,” Mr Butler said.
Certain strands of human papillomavirus, a sexually transmitted infection, can lead to cervical cancer, while others cause genital warts. Gardasil, the vaccine used in Ireland, protects against both.
Reactions and Effects of Gardasil Resulting in Extreme Trauma (Regret), a campaign group, has claimed that more than 400 Irish girls developed chronic fatigue syndrome and other symptoms as a result of the HPV vaccine. Jonathan Irwin, the founder of the Jack and Jill Children’s Foundation, blamed the vaccine for his teenage daughter’s chronic health issues in a video posted online last week.
The HSE, Irish Cancer Society and other health bodies have said that the claims are unfounded and there is no scientific evidence of a link between the vaccine and such conditions. The HSE said that every year 90 women died from cervical cancer in Ireland and 6,500 underwent treatment for an abnormality caused by the virus, which may leave them infertile.
The WHO has estimated that 420,000 deaths from cervical cancer would be prevented if 80 per cent of the 12-year-old girls worldwide received the vaccine.
Kevin Pollock, a senior epidemiologist at Health Protection Scotland, presented research yesterday showing that less than one per cent of those vaccinated tested positive for the virus. He said the findings had “exceeded his expectations” by demonstrating that the vaccine protected against another three high-risk HPV types that caused 10 per cent of cervical cancers.
“We forecast a 90 per cent reduction in cervical cancer in Scotland within the next few years ,” he said.
Scotland has maintained a vaccination rate of more than 85 per cent since the vaccine was introducted in 2008.
“The clinical trials promised that the vaccine could protect against the virus for ten years, but I fully expect that the protection will be lifelong,” Mr Pollock said.
Angela O’Leary, principal medical officer at the HSE, said preliminary figures showed that uptake of the vaccine had increased by up to five per cent in Cork and Kerry in recent months.
“This is good news but we need to build on this success so that girls are protected with this life-saving vaccine,” she said.
Ann Hogan, president of the Irish Medical Organisation, said that these results were not a signal for health agencies to relax their efforts and that more needed to be done to combat the “fake news” given to parents.
“We need to keep the pressure up to provide accurate information about the merits of vaccination for HPV,” she said.
More than 200,000 girls in Ireland have received the HPV vaccine since 2008.