A targeted social media campaign has been cited as one of the reasons why Ireland managed to turn around a sharp drop in the number of teenage girls receiving the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, which protects against most cervical cancers.
A research paper by Dr Brenda Corcoran, Dr Anna Clarke and Dr Tom Barrett of the HSE's National Immunisation Office, published in in the Lancet medical journal, says that "forming powerful cross-sectoral alliances" also helped to rapidly improve vaccine uptake.
The authors say the formation last August of the “HPV Vaccination Alliance” – a group of more than 35 organisations working in health, women’s rights, child welfare, and wider civil society “that are committed to raising awareness of HPV vaccination” – helped to reverse the trend.
Their paper, entitled Rapid Response to the HPV Vaccination Crisis in Ireland, also says the programme benefited from a targeted media and social media strategy.
“In 2017-18, a media campaign was launched featuring vaccinated girls, which was strongly supported by the HPV Vaccination Alliance and senior politicians. A wide range of groups now promote the vaccine, which has had an immediate impact.”
The Irish experience contrasts with those of other countries where there has been a steep decline in vaccine uptake due to health scares such as Japan and Denmark. "It is vital that this positive momentum is maintained to decrease morbidity and mortality from cervical cancer," the researchers conclude.
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 86.9 per cent in 2014-2015.
No variance was seen between schools of different religious ethos, although disadvantaged schools had a lower uptake than others in 2013-2014, they say.
The proportion of girls who completed the vaccination schedule in 2015-2016 dropped to 72.3 per cent, and uptake of the first dose decreased to an estimated 50 per cent in 2016-2017.
“This decline in vaccine uptake was due to parental concerns about vaccine safety that were spread by lobby groups established in 2015,” they conclude. “The groups built a strong social media platform with emotive personal narratives, and they lobbied politicians and distributed misinformation, with support from local and national media.”
This publicity, they point out, resulted in the documentary Cervical Cancer Vaccine – Is It Safe? being broadcast on national television in December 2015, containing footage from a similar Danish programme.
“Regaining parental trust was difficult without direct contact, so we at the Irish National Immunisation Office established a steering group of concerned organisations in early 2016 to encourage all key stakeholders to actively promote the vaccine,” the researchers write.
Focus groups on parental attitudes to HPV vaccination were held and they intensified their analysis of and activity on social media.
“The results of these activities assisted us in establishing liaisons with educational, parental, political, and other bodies, and in light of the results of the focus group discussions and analysis of social media, we revised print and online materials including short videos on our WHO-accredited website.”
Unvaccinated girls were also offered another opportunity to be vaccinated and the “first dose uptake” increased in 2016-2017 to 55.8 per cent and to an estimated 61.7 per cent in 2017-2018.