A campaign that persuades
HPV vaccine: The case can be made on its merits
The launch of a scaled-up campaign by the Health Service Executive (HSE) to encourage a greater uptake of the HPV vaccine is welcome. It follows a precipitous fall in vaccine uptake among the target group of 12- to 13-year-old schoolgirls as a result of what HSE chief executive Tony O’ Brien has called a “well-orchestrated” movement aiming “disinformation that has no foundation in science or medicine,” at parents, teachers and teenage girls.
A number of anti-vaccine groups have mounted a determined campaign against the HPV vaccine. They say they are motivated by recipients becoming unwell following immunisation. However, the broad constellation of effects they attribute to the vaccine has no scientific basis.
Worldwide, the HPV vaccine has been administered to 227 million people. Extensive surveillance studies in Sweden, Denmark, Scotland and France have found that the alleged side-effects are just as common in unvaccinated girls as vaccinated girls. The World Health Organisation, the US Centre for Disease Control, and the European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention have unequivocally stated that the benefits of the HPV vaccination greatly outweigh the risks.
A recent report from the National Cancer Registry found that HPV infections cause up to 420 cancer cases a year, and up to 130 cancer deaths. Its calculation that up to 100 HPV-related deaths are preventable by immunisation is a reminder of the powerful preventive role of the HPV vaccine.
The scaled up vaccination initiative is a necessary public health response to the unfounded allegations of the anti-vaccine campaigners. However, some of the aggressive language used at the launch is unhelpful: telling people to “butt out” and labelling those opposed to HPV immunisation as “emotional terrorists” may just play into the hands of those who trust emotion over logic.
A more subtle and oblique response, built primarily around social media, and using stories of lives saved rather than just statistics, is required. We live in a post-truth world; expertise must be worn lightly to be effective.