CervicalCheck controversy helping to improve uptake of HPV vaccine

More teenage girls getting vaccinated as awareness increases, conference hears

CervicalCheck campaigner Vicky Phelan. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

CervicalCheck campaigner Vicky Phelan. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

Publicity surrounding the CervicalCheck screening programme is helping increase the uptake of the HPV vaccine, a conference has heard.

Prof Mary Horgan, president of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland, said it was heartening to see the uptake of the vaccine now moving back towards previous levels.

Uptake of the vaccine has increased from 51 per cent in 2016 to 63 per cent last year, according to the HSE, which said it was hopeful of a further increase this year.

Prof Horgan said she hoped the increase would continue. “Events at the HSE’s CervicalCheck programme together with patient advocacy has raised awareness of cervical cancer. This is now having an impact on the decisions that parents and young people are taking to get vaccinated.”

The vaccine protects against several strains of the human papilloma virus (HPV), and prevents seven out of 10 cervical cancers.

The schools-based vaccination programme for girls aged 12-13 years began in Ireland in 2010. Initially, the proportion of students who completed the vaccination course was above 80 per cent, reaching a high of 87 per cent in 2014-2015.

However, uptake tumbled in the succeeding years in the fact of campaigning by a number of lobby groups who claimed, without scientific evidence, that hundreds of girls had suffered long-term damage after receiving the vaccine.

Advocates

Prof Horgan, addressing an RCPI conference on Wednesday, called on the Government, healthcare professionals and health advocates to unite in support of the eradication of cervical cancer. 

“In Australia they expect to virtually eradicate cervical cancer within the next couple of decades through gender neutral vaccination against the HPV virus, screening and HPV testing.

“Ireland has a similar opportunity and I hope we can all unite to achieve this result in my lifetime and certainly in all of our children’s lifetime,” she said.

Prof Marion Saville, a cytopathologist and expert in HPV and screening in Australia, said the inquiry into the Irish CervicalCheck programme showed it was working well and achieving its aims “as a whole”.

“There has been a 7 per cent fall in the number of women diagnosed with cervical cancer every year and among women participating in screening high rates of cancers were detected at an early stage that allowed many women to have a successful outcome.”

Plans to extend the vaccine to teenage boys are currently under technical assessment by the Health Information and Quality Authority. CervicalCheck also intends to move to a form of HPV testing for cervical cancer with lower rates of false negatives.

Prof Saville said the introduction of HPV testing would help to get a better handle on this disease. “Together with a high uptake of HPV vaccination [it] is Ireland’s best chance of eliminating cervical cancer as a public health problem.”