Minister for Health Simon Harris has said he does not know if introducing mandatory vaccination is allowable in Ireland under the Constitution and that is why has sought advice from the Attorney General.
Mr Harris said on Monday he believed strongly that mandatory vaccination should be the “norm” in Irish society but conceded he was unsure of whether or not it was possible.
“What I am trying to do here is ignite a debate on [mandatory vaccination]. We are going to look at the legal advice and also look at our Constitution.
“Even if did not happen, it is good we are discussing it,” he said.
Mr Harris followed up his call last week for mandatory reporting, first reported in The Irish Times, by writing to all 218 TDs and Senators over the weekend asking them to strongly support vaccinations.
He denied on Monday he had written the letters seeking support because he could not guarantee mandatory vaccinations.
Mr Harris said he had taken a number of significant actions to respond to the upsurge in cases of measles and mumps in the recent years, in addition to a discernible fall in the uptake of the HPV vaccine – the latter situation has now been largely remedied.
‘Kids at risk’
Speaking on the News at One on RTÉ Radio One on Monday, Mr Harris accepted that parents had rights to make choices on behalf of their children. However, he added: “Over 95 per cent of us who are parents will vaccinate our children. If you as a parent decide not to vaccinate your children and you send your child to a creche or to a school, you are putting other kids at risk.
“Yes you have a right as a parent and so does your child. So do other kids.”
The law on this matter is influenced by a 2001 ruling by the Supreme Court on a case taken by parents who opposed their infant being subjected to the heel-prick test (PKU), which tests for a number of potentially severe conditions. The court decided that parents had a constitutional right to make decisions about the health of their children unless there was a grave or immediate threat to health or life.
Mr Harris said he was worried about false information being disseminated online.
“My worry is that in the social media world in which we live there has been disinformation spread and that has resulted in [outbreaks]. We had 25 cases of measles in Ireland in 2017, we had 86 last year and, in the first four months of this year, we have seen 47.
‘Campaign of misinformation’
“We are seeing a very significant increase in diseases we had thought were confined to the history books. We had 822 cases of mumps last year.”
In relation to the HPV vaccine to prevent cervical cancer, Mr Harris said there was a high uptake when it was initially introduced but it dropped because of “a campaign of misinformation . . . Now we are working very hard to build it back up.”
He said 11 countries in Europe had taken steps to introduce mandatory vaccination and it has been introduced in the state of New York in the US.
Mr Harris has been criticised by Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin for making announcements on actions without first putting steps in place to ensure they will happen.
However, Mr Harris’s criticism of so-called anti-vax protesters has been echoed by by Fianna Fáil spokesman on health Stephen Donnelly, who said vaccine hesitancy is one key reason for the increase in avoidable diseases such as measles.
“The spread of misinformation about vaccinations is quite literally killing people. The lies anti-vaxxers peddle range from stretching the truth to the straightforward fake news,” he said.