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‘Uninformed nonsense’ about HPV vaccine is endangering lives

Health Minister says it’s time to ‘take on the scaremongers’ who are misinforming people

IMO president Dr Ann Hogan blamed ‘fake news’ and social media for a significant decline in take up of cancer-protecting HPV vaccination amongst young girls. Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

“Uninformed nonsense” about the safety of the cervical cancer vaccine is interfering with medical efforts to save lives, according to Minister for Health Simon Harris.

Mr Harris said it was time to “take on the scaremongers” who were misinforming people about the HPV (human papilloma-virus) vaccine against the cancer.

Acknowledging there is a problem with falling vaccination rates, he urged doctors at the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) annual conference to “come out fighting” by providing clear and accurate information about the benefits of vaccination.

HPV vaccination rates among young teenage girls have dropped from 87 per cent to 50 per cent due to opposition from a campaign group that has linked the Gardasil vaccine to a range of alleged health harms. Scientific research has failed to established any link between the vaccine and the alleged side-effects.

Mr Harris said he took his medical advice on vaccinations from his chief medical officer, the European Medicines Agency and the World Health Organisation “not from random social media accounts”.

“If you want to give medical advice on vaccinations, become a doctor. If not, get out of the way and stay away from our public health policy.”

“We have vaccines in this country that can prevent death. We have a vaccine that can prevent girls from dying of cancer. And yet we have uninformed nonsense interfering with medical efforts to save lives. Shame on them.”

His views echoed those expressed earlier by IMO president Dr Ann Hogan who blamed “fake news” and social media for a significant decline in take up of cancer-protecting HPV vaccination amongst young girls.

In her address, Dr Hogan said: “Uptake rates for the HPV vaccine amongst young girls are declining to a worrying extent on the back of fake news stories about non-existent risks from vaccinations. As a result, we are putting the future health of young women at risk of cervical cancer and other ailments.

“It is unfortunate that we are living in an age where there has never been such hostility to expertise and facts. This anti-expert bias has been a real issue in politics internationally over the past 12 months.

“But are we in Ireland immune from this phenomenon? I think of the attention given to ridiculous scare mongering about risks with vaccination and the insidious campaigning against, for example, the HPV vaccine which has directly impacted on uptake levels for this vital cancer-preventing vaccine and I wonder how vulnerable we are to this anti-expert hysteria.”

In her speech, Dr Hogan also warned that the working environment in the Irish healthcare system was literally making doctors sick.

She said the reality was the health service provided an unhealthy working environment with insufficient resources to enable the frontline professionals to do the jobs they were trained to do.

She said the Irish health service itself had moved into a state of chronic illness.

“The health service is not suffering from a temporary illness.It is suffering from a long term, persistent and severely debilitating illness caused by under-resourcing over decades and like any patient with chronic illness, the outlook is very difficult.”

Dr Hogan said that while vision and reforms were required, what was much more urgently needed was money”to enables to treat the patients waiting for our help today, to resource our health centres and GP surgeries to deal with the additional workloads which have been foisted on us even as the budget for respective services have been slashed.”

Dr Hogan is a specialist in community medicine and said budgets in this area, like in other parts of the health service, had been steadily reduced.

“Colleagues have left without being replaced, promotions have been withheld from other colleagues even as they have been tasked with doing the work and carrying the responsibility of more senior posts,” she said.

“And at the same time out workloads have increased.”

In a wide-ranging speech to the conference on health issues, Mr Harris said the 10-year plan being drawn up by the Dáil future of healthcare committee must be realistic, and conscious of cost and timelines.

Negotiations on drawing up a new GP contract will take some time but “real progress” could be expected this year, he said.