Independent TD Finian McGrath made representations to Minister for Health Simon Harris on behalf of anti-vaccination campaign group Regret while he was junior minister for health, questioning the HPV cervical cancer vaccine.
Internal emails between Mr McGrath and Mr Harris show Mr McGrath brought concerns over the side effects of the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) vaccine to Mr Harris three times between August 2016 and July this year.
In late August 2016 Mr McGrath sent documentation from the Regret group to Mr Harris. The literature claimed hundreds of Irish girls had developed chronic ill health due to the vaccine, that included “regular seizures, daily headaches, joint pain, loss of feeling in limbs, muscle weakness”. The internal correspondence was obtained under the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act.
Along with the literature Mr McGrath requested “a response to the concerns about the HPV vaccine Gardasil”, and told his Cabinet colleague Mr Harris the number of girls adversely affected by the vaccine in the Regret group “seems to be rising”.
Gardasil is the drug used by the HSE in the cervical cancer vaccination programme provided to girls in the first year of secondary school. It protects against 70 per cent of cancers of the cervix, which are caused by strains of the HPV virus.
Regret are a group representing 450 young girls and their parents who say the girls developed medical conditions and suffered adverse side effects after receiving the HPV vaccine.
In an email this July Mr McGrath asked Minister for Health Simon Harris to respond to his “representation for the support group Regret about the HPV Gardasil vaccine”.
In reply Mr Harris said the Gardasil vaccine was approved for use by the European Medicines Agency, and over time will save the lives of 60 girls in Ireland each year.
“The use of unvalidated information may cause harm to those unvaccinated children and adults who develop vaccine preventable disease”, he told Mr McGrath.
Mr Harris said: “There is no scientific evidence that the vaccine causes long term illnesses”, and medical conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome are conditions that arise among adolescents around the age girls receive the vaccine.
“Some parents have connected the vaccine to their daughter’s condition … The HPV vaccine cannot be held responsible for these illnesses”, Mr Harris wrote.
Mr McGrath was heavily criticised last month when he said he stood by concerns he raised as an opposition TD over the Gardasil drug. Following the controversy he released a statement which said: “Personally and as Minister of State with responsibility for disabilities, I do accept that such vaccines are a very important part of Government health strategy.”
The Catholic Bishop of Waterford and Lismore, Phonsie Cullinan, retracted his criticism of the HPV vaccine earlier this month apologised for his “poor judgment”. He described as bad judgment his attacks on the vaccine, when he claimed it was “lulling” young girls into promiscuity. “That was an error of judgment. It was far too simplistic a way of looking at it,” he said.
Fianna Fáil health spokesman Billy Kelleher TD said Mr McGrath’s representations for the anti-vaccination group while a minister were inappropriate and unhelpful. “Minister McGrath needs to accept the fact that being a minister brings with it a responsibility to follow clear medical advice and not engage in non-scientific scaremongering” he said.
A spokesman for Mr McGrath said as a TD and Minister of State he interacts with many groups and individuals. “Minister McGrath has reiterated his support for the HPV vaccination programme recently and is happy to do so again now” he said.
Speaking to The Irish Times Simon Harris said the only people qualified to give advice on the HPV vaccination were medical professionals. "The HPV vaccine saves lives and my appeal to parents is simple - get the facts and information from medical experts."
Between September 2010 (when the immunisation programme was introduced in secondary schools) and May 2017, the Health Products Regulation Authority (HPRA) has received 1,091 reports of adverse reactions to the Gardasil drug.
Around 230,000 girls have received the full vaccine course, and 650 girls received medical treatment following the vaccine, the vast majority of which was for “transient” side effects such as fainting or nausea, according to the HPRA.
The uptake rate of the HPV vaccine among girls in secondary schools has dropped from 87 per cent in 2014, to 50 per cent in the 2016 school year.