Harney announces cervical vaccine programme


Minister for Health Mary Harney today announced that she expects to begin a programme of cervical cancer vaccinations, which will be given to 12-year-old girls in primary school, in September next year.

The vaccine would prevent girls from contracting a virus that can cause cervical cancer in later life. About 85 women die from cervical cancer in Ireland each year, but about 2,000 potential cases are diagnosed through smear testing.

Ms Harney accepted a recommendation in a report from the Health Information and Quality Authority (Hiqa) that the vaccine be given to all 12-year-olds, but she rejected a recommendation for a once-off "catch-up" programme of vaccination for about 93,000 girls in the 13- to 15-year-old age group on grounds of its €29 million cost.

She said this was due to the "competing demands" of other programmes, such as breast screening and plans to screen for bowel cancer.

The Minister said the Health Service Executive would now enter a tender process and that it would go into discussions with the two pharmaceutical companies that make the vaccines.

She said, however, that they must be provided on a “cost-effective” basis given the current financial demands on the health service. The Government could not consider the scheme at the projected cost of €10 million, she said.

“I’ve asked the HSE to prepare for the introduction from September next year. But it has to be cost-effective,” she said.

Ms Harney also said there would need to be at least an 80 per cent take-up of the vaccine, and she appealed for all parents of 12-year-old girls to give their consent to having their children vaccinated.

“Every 12-year-old girl will be offered the opportunity to have the vaccine subject to her parents consenting.”

Speaking on RTE’s News at One, Ms Harney said she hoped there would not be resistance to the programme. “Clearly it’s controversial in this sense that the vaccine has to be administered [to the girls] before they become sexually active.”

Ms Harney said she did not accept the argument that vaccinating 12-year-old girls against cervical cancer would encourage promiscuity.

“Clearly it prevents cervical cancer when the girl is older. We have to give the vaccine on the basis of the medical advice available . . . that it should be administered to girls at the age of 12.”

The Minister said many parents would not yet be aware of the importance of the vaccine and of the medical breakthrough involved in preventing cervical cancer. But she believed the “vast majority” would give their consent.

She rejected the idea of a one-off “catch-up” vaccination programme for older teenage girls, saying it was not possible to do everything. “We have to have a sense of priority and balance,” she said.

A national smear test programme will begin this September, and the Government also hoped to introduce a colorectal screening programme for bowel cancer, Ms Harney said.

“We also want to look at extending the age of the women that are called for breast screening.”

Under the new national cervical screening programme, women between the ages of 25 and 44 will be called for smear tests every three years, while those aged between 45 and 60 will be called every five years.

Ms Harney said this was in line with “best international practice”.

Cervical cancer takes many years to develop but can be cured if it is caught in its early stages. Smear testing has proven effective in identifying if a woman has cells that are showing signs of becoming cancerous.

Two vaccines, Gardasil and Cervarix, have been approved for use against cervical cancer. They work by preventing a woman becoming infected with certain types of a virus known as the human papilloma virus (HPV), which are sexually transmitted and cause the majority of cervical cancers.

The Health Information and Quality Authority, which recommended the introduction of the vaccination programme, welcomed the announcement today.

Project manager Dr Patricia Harrington said the authority believed a vaccine programme, together with a cervical-cancer screening programme, will have a “significant impact on reducing the incidence of cervical cancer for women in Ireland”.

The National Cancer Screening Service (NCSS) also welcomed the announcement.

But the body said HPV vaccines do not eliminate the need for a cervical cancer screening programme, as the vaccines available do not offer protection against all types of HPV that cause the disease.

"Screening will also be necessary to protect women who have not been vaccinated. In due course it is anticipated that the impact of HPV vaccination on the incidence of cervical cancer will result in changes to the operational structure of a population based cervical screening programme," the NCSS said.

It said the National Cervical Screening Programme would provide free smear tests to 1.1 million women and that it had the potential to cut current mortality rates from cervical cancer by up to 80 per cent.