‘I cocked up’: Finian McGrath on his handling of HPV vaccine

Minister says he is more than aware of the impact of cancer, given illness killed his wife

As the eighth anniversary of his wife’s death from cancer approaches, Finian McGrath spent Tuesday morning in his constituency office reading “negative, hostile” emails about his recent controversial comments about the HPV vaccine.

The Minister of State at the Department of Health created a mini-crisis for the Government at the weekend when he stood over his previously expressed opposition to the vaccine used to prevent cervical cancer. He later performed a U-turn and announced his support for the vaccination programme.

"Some of the emails are saying, 'You know nothing about cancer', but I actually do," Mr McGrath told The Irish Times.

“Of course I take the whole issue of cancer very seriously because of my own position. I lost my beautiful wife eight years ago. Our family lived with cancer for 14 years.”

Mr McGrath said his late wife, Anne, was first diagnosed with breast cancer before diagnoses of bone cancer and, finally, pancreatic and liver cancer.

A schoolteacher from Artane, Ms McGrath, was under the care of Prof Des Carney of Dublin’s Mater hospital before she died on November 6th, 2009, at the Bon Secours Hospital.

“Our family really appreciate Des and his team for the 14 years they gave her,” Mr McGrath said.

HPV controversy

The political controversy he has been embroiled in for the past number of days was a mess of his own making. It was also indicative of his ever-present hunger for publicity and constant readiness to talk to journalists, often without adequate preparation.

“I’ll put my hands up and say the way I handled the issue, I cocked up,” he said.

In March 2016, while an Opposition TD, he submitted a written question to then minister for health, Leo Varadkar, asking him to “remove” the vaccine.

He was appointed Minister of State with responsibility for disability about two months later.

His comments given last week to the Sunday Times, standing over his original position, infuriated Government colleagues who had just rolled out a campaign to address parents' concerns and encourage vaccine take-up.

“I think somewhere in the region of 30 per cent of reported events are categorised as very serious ... I think that’s in the UK. I’m 99 per cent sure. It’s something I saw earlier on in the office, I’m nearly positive,” he said then.

Unequivocal support

A series of further interventions aimed at settling the controversy culminated in his call to Irish Cancer Society chief executive John McCormack on Monday to express his “unequivocal support” for the Gardasil vaccine.

“It was difficult to make that phone call, of course it was. John is an old friend. He knew Anne,” he said. “I was conscious, too, of my own daughters [Caoimhe and Cliodhna] listening to daddy getting involved in something about cancer.”

Like many TDs, Mr McGrath is frequently contacted by parents who blame vaccines such as HPV for a decline in their children’s health.

“I’ll always reserve the right to raise people’s concerns,” he said.

However, he insisted there was “no equivocation” in his present attitude to the HPV vaccine and he was “totally supportive” of the campaign.