Decline in HPV vaccine uptake will have worrying health outcomes

Cancer risk from virus extends to all of the population

 

The decline in the number of girls receiving the HPV vaccine which protects against cervical cancer is a source of concern. Provisional figures for the 2015/2016 academic year, highlighted by the Irish Cancer Society, suggest a take-up rate of 70 per cent. This represents a considerable drop on the 87 per cent rate during the 2014/2015 school year.

About 99 per cent of cervical cancer cases are due to persistent infection with certain strains of HPV. The virus damages cells on the surface of the cervix, which can lead to the development of precancerous lesions over a number of years. Screening programmes aim to pick up these changes at the precancerous phase. But the discovery of a vaccine for HPV offers the chance to prevent infection before women become sexually active.

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted virus. Up to 80 per cent of males and females will become infected by 50 years of age. In addition to cancer of the cervix, HPV has been implicated in the development of cancers of the vulva, penis, anus and throat.

The patient advocacy group, Regret, represents over 350 young Irish women who it says have developed long-term side effects following HPV vaccination. It claims recipients developed seizures, fatigue and joint pain after immunisation. However extensive research has not found a causal relationship between HPV and the constellation of symptoms experienced by a minority of recipients.

The significant drop in HPV vaccination rates suggests parents and teenagers are concerned about the reported side effects. It would be a pity if these concerns developed into a fully fledged “vaccine scare” as happened with the MMR vaccine in the 1990s. We are still seeng the effects of a lack of herd immunity to measles as a result of false claims of a link between MMR and autism.

Those represented by Regret must receive a full range of healthcare; it would, however, be wrong for their concerns to affect the take up of a safe and effective vaccine.

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