Government abandons cervical vaccination programme


The Government has abandoned a plan announced just three months ago to have all 12-year-old girls vaccinated against a virus that causes cervical cancer, citing “very scarce” health resources.

Minister for Health Mary Harney this evening said the economic situation had “rapidly and seriously” deteriorated since the plan was announced in August. The vaccination against strains of the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) would have cost an estimated €9.7 milliion annually.

The decision was immediately criticised by the Opposition and by the Irish Cancer Society, which asked Ms Harney to make a clear commitment to restore the vaccination scheme "at the earliest possible opportunity".

In a statement, Ms Harney said: “Public resources, including those for health, are very scarce indeed and will remain so.

“I have decided that the best that can be achieved in these circumstances is to prioritise funding for the development of the cervical screening programme and treatment services at the eight designated cancer centres, which includes the challenge of funding very expensive cancer drugs.

“I will not therefore be proceeding with the introduction of a HPV vaccination programme.”

Between 70 and 80 women with cervical cancer die in Ireland each year and some 200 new cases are diagnosed.

The Irish Cancer Society expressed "serious disappointment" with the decision to vaccinate young girls against the virus which is "one of the biggest risks in developing cervical cancer".

Head of advocacy Kathleen O’Meara asked the Minister to make "a clear commitment to the restoration of the vaccination programme at the earliest possible opportunity".

Fine Gael health spokesman Dr James Reilly said the decision was "a slap in the face to people who believe in prevention being better than cure".

"For a miserly sum, they are now going to expose our children, our young women, to cervical cancer."

Dr Reilly said he would not be surprised to see women who contract cervical cancer in the future "suing the State" over the failure to implement a vaccination plan.

Sinn Féin health spokesman Caomghin Ó Caoláin said the decision to drop the plan was "disgraceful" at a time when tax breaks for developers of private hospitals were being left intact.

 Labour health spokesperson Jan O’Sullivan said she was bitterly disappointed at the announcement.

“This is extremely short-sighted of the Minister for Health to put such an important programme on hold especially given that it was only announced in August."

“We have seen the Government’s prioritisation of our health service and it is a disgrace. The decision also completely flies in the face of what Minister Harney said when introducing the scheme that she accepted
‘the expert advice that the introduction of a universal, high uptake, vaccination programme for young girls, inconjunction with population based cervical screening, could significantly reduce overall cervical
cancer rates,’ she said.

Ms Harney said tonight the continuation and expansion of the Cancer Control Programme under Prof Tom Keane “remains a priority” and that funding of €15 million had been made available for this programme.

The Minister said the Government was currently rolling out the National Cervical Screening Programme, Cervical Check.

“The programme will provide free smear tests through primary care settings to the 1.1 million women living in Ireland aged between 25 and 60 years. A successful national programme has the potential to cut mortality rates from cervical cancer by up to 80 per cent,” she said.

There are more than 200 strains of HPV, which is sexually transmitted. Just a small number are associated with cancer of the cervix, the neck of the womb.

HPV types 16 and 18 are found in almost 70 per cent of cervical cancers, while another five sub-types are responsible for a further 20 per cent of cases. HPV infection is found in 99 per cent of women with cervical cancer.

Up to 2,000 women in Ireland each year are diagnosed with changes to the cells of the cervix that, while not cancerous, have the potential to become cancerous over a long period of time if they are not treated.

If caught in the early stages, cervical cancer has a five-year survival rate of 80 per cent or greater.

Ms Harney announced on August 5th she had asked the Health Service Executive (HSE) to prepare a plan for the introduction of a human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination programme for 12-year-old girls to commence in September 2009.

Her decision was based on a report by the Health Information and Quality Authority (HIQA) which recommended that the vaccine be given to 12-year-olds, along with a catch-up vaccination programme for 13-15 year olds.

The report said the annual cost of vaccinating 12 year olds would be €9.7 million, while the catch-up programme for 13-15 year-old girls would be €29.2 million. It estimated the cost per child would be just under €400.

The vaccine, consisting of three injections over a six-month period, was to be given free in primary schools.

Ms Harney was criticised by some experts for the decision, for budgetary reasons, not to implement the once-off catch-up vaccine programme for 13- to 15-year-olds.

Parents here who elect to vaccinate their older daughters privately now face costs in the region of €600.