Why we’ll be signing the dotted line when the HPV immunisation form arrives
The known facts are that Gardasil is safe and effective and that potential side-effects are extremely rare
Gardasil vaccine: the HSE and the World Health Organisation have repeatedly issued assurances that it is safe and effective. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
Next month, along with the parents of more than 30,000 other girls who have just started secondary school, our family will be faced with a decision – whether or not to allow our daughter be vaccinated against the human papillomavirus (HPV) that causes cervical cancer.
As a journalist, I have had a ringside seat for the controversy over the vaccine, known as Gardasil, in recent years. I have reported the repeated assurances of doctors, the HSE and the World Health Organisation that it is safe and effective. And I have listened to heartrending stories of parents who believe their daughters’ health was destroyed after they received it.
As a non-expert, I am not in a position to gainsay the assurances of doctors and scientists, who point out to me that more than 230,000 Irish girls have received the vaccine, and 227 million doses have been distributed worldwide, and yet no study has been published that points to an increase in any long-term condition associated with Gardasil.
Equally, though, I am poorly placed to gainsay the very real testimonies of the families to which I have talked. How can I, as someone who is not in possession of the full details of a case and who has not lived through the events described, say to a distressed mother crying on the phone that perhaps her daughter’s illness is due to factors others than vaccination side-effects?
It is not an easy position to be in. The campaign against the vaccine is heavy on emotion, it is true, but it is at least partly driven by the experiences of ordinary people going through tough times with children who have fallen ill, for whatever reason, in their early teens.
It was reassuring, therefore, to hear Dr Stephanie O’Keeffe, the HSE’s director of health and wellbeing admit at the launch of its information campaign that she too, as the mother of two pre-teen daughters, found herself “stopped in my tracks” by the opposition to the vaccine and that she felt the need to seek advice from her medical colleagues.
Every parent wants the best for their child. Many of us will experience “dark nights of the soul”, moments when we question what we think we know and wonder “what if?”.
Prof Karina Butler, a paediatrician and head of the National Immunisation Advisory Committee, also acknowledged that moment of “hesitancy” a parent feels and stressed the need to address the concerns raised.
It is one thing, however, to worry briefly about the possible effects of a medical decision, and another to make an association between a vaccine and medical symptoms in the absence of any evidence linking the two.
If you then campaign on this basis, asserting certainty where there is none and claiming causation where, equally, evidence is lacking, you deserve to have your arguments thoroughly scrutinised.
Unfortunately, Regret, the main group campaigning against the vaccine, is not a registered charity. It does not publish accounts. Many of the claims it makes on its website have been thoroughly debunked. It has been unable to provide evidence showing Gardasail caused the health problems of the girls it represents.
Arguably, the controversy is a proxy for wars being fought on wider fronts: a growing distrust of authority; what HSE director general Tony O’Brien refers to as “the post-truth age” in the era of social media; opposition to all vaccines; and suspicion of big pharma.
The scare stories spread like wildfire in the echo chamber provided by Facebook, despite the lack of evidence. No amount of reassurance will alter the view of the keyboard warriors putting out the worst disinformation.
Yet for worried parents, there is plenty of reassurance, from journalistic factchecks to the HSE’s hpv.ie website. The known facts are that Gardasil is safe and effective and that potential side-effects are extremely rare and limited in time.
Prof Butler says she has been treating young girls with the same constellation of symptoms described by Regret for years, long before the vaccine was introduced. The incidence of these symptoms is no higher among girls who have received Gardasil compared to those who have not, studies show.
For all these reasons, we will be signing on the dotted line when the immunisation consent form arrives, happy in the knowledge that we are protecting our daughter against most forms of cervical cancers during her life.