Government gives up cervical cancer vaccine plan


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 said yesterday that the economic situation had "rapidly and seriously" deteriorated since the plan was announced in August.

The human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccination would have cost an estimated €9.7 million annually. Between 70 and 80 women with cervical cancer die in Ireland each year and some 200 new cases are diagnosed.

The decision was immediately criticised by the Opposition and by the Irish Cancer Society, which asked the Government 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," she added.

Later Ms Harney told reporters that the Health Service Executive had not been able to say how much the procurement cost for the vaccine would be.

But the Minister said that the administration cost, set out by the HSE was "not inconsiderable".

Irish Cancer Society chief executive John McCormack said the decision was "very disappointing".

"If this is going to be the beginning of a pattern around hard-fought decisions being reversed, the Irish Cancer Society would be awfully concerned about it," Mr McCormack added.

He acknowledged that it would be difficult to have a commitment made to the programme in the current economic environment.

"But this is a cancer prevention measure and one euro's prevention is as good as two euros of cure."

Fine Gael health spokesman Dr James Reilly said that 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," he said.

Ms Harney said 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.

Sinn Féin health spokesman Caoimhghín O Caoláin said that the decision was "disgraceful" at a time when tax breaks were being left intact for the developers of private hospitals.

The Minister said last night that the Government was currently rolling out the National Cervical Screening Programme, Cervical Check, which had the potential to cut mortality rates from cervical cancer by "up to 80 per cent".

"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," Ms Harney said.

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

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.