Concerns over HPV vaccine have no scientific basis, health official says

Decision not to take jab leaving a large number of girls at risk of cervical cancer

Concerns about a cervical cancer vaccine having a negative impact on those who receive it have no scientific basis, a senior health official has said. Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

Concerns about a cervical cancer vaccine having a negative impact on those who receive it have no scientific basis, a senior health official has said. Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

 

Concerns about a cervical cancer vaccine having a negative impact on those who receive it have no scientific basis and are leaving large numbers of girls at a future risk, a senior health official has said.

Dr Colette Bonner, deputy chief medical officer at the Department of Health, said there was concern that online discussion about the HPV vaccine “may lead to reduced rates in the other childhood vaccines”.

She told the Oireachtas Committee on Health: “Current parental concerns about HPV vaccine safety on social and local media which have no scientific basis are leaving large numbers of girls at a future risk of cervical cancer.”

The committee heard there had been a steep fall in the number of teenage girls taking the vaccine, which is given to schoolgirls and can prevent the development of the human papilloma virus.

When it was was first introduced the take-up rate was at 87 per cent (which is close to the World Heath Organisation target of 95 per cent uptake) but has since fallen to 50 per cent, due to what were described as “unfounded fears” over HPV.

Serious consequences

Dr Bonner said the fall was attributed to concerns that had no basis in facts. The consequences are very serious with unvaccinated women increasing the likelihood of being infected by the virus, which has carcinogenic consequences.

She also warned that decisions taken by parents not to vaccinate their children have wider implications for others.

“As recently as last week the director of the National Cancer Registry commented that the reduction in uptake rate of HPV vaccine among Irish girls is very concerning,” she said.

“Essentially this means that a large cohort of girls is now at risk of developing cervical cancer later in their lives... Despite the availability of free and effective vaccines, a small number of people make the personal choice not to vaccinate themselves or their children in the belief that vaccines are unsafe or no longer necessary.”

Dr Kevin Kelleher, the assistant national director of public health, also highlighted this issue in his submission.

Dr Bonner and Dr Kelleher were part of delegation of public health, vaccination and immunisation specialists from the Department of Health, the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland, and the Health Service Executive which addressed the committee.

Dramatic fall

Prof Karina Butler of the RCPI, in her submission, produced figures that showed the dramatic fall in incidence of conditions such as measles, polio and diphtheria since vaccination was introduced.

In 1948, 63 people died from measles and as recently as 1980 there were 10,000 cases. However since then the number of cases has been reduced to 43 cases. The exception was in 2000 when there were 1,500 cases. This was attributed to a lower uptake of MMR over fears, later discredited, that the vaccine could led to autism. The vaccination rate has since risen to 92 per cent.

Dr Bonner told the committee: “It has taken many years to get MMR uptake rates up to the current national level of 92 per cent... However, this figure masks a small number of areas of low uptake.

“This leaves these areas vulnerable to outbreaks of measles… Last year there were 40 cases of measles reported in Ireland related to three imported case from Europe.

“Measles cases occurred in children who either had no vaccination or were under vaccinated. If Ireland is to achieve the WHO target of measles elimination by 2020, then efforts must be made to identify children at risk and offer them vaccine,” she said.