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FactCheck: Is the Bishop of Waterford right to say the HPV vaccine is '70% safe'?

Bishop Phonsie Cullinan said the vaccine could encourage sexual activity. We can’t factcheck that – but we can say his ’70% safe’ claim is FALSE.


ON WEDNESDAY, THE Bishop Waterford and Lismore was the subject of controversy after he made comments about the Gardasil HPV vaccine.

In correspondence with the Munster Express, Bishop Phonsie Cullinan questioned the effectiveness of the vaccine and suggested that it is encouraging sexual activity among young people.

Among his claims, Cullinan said that the vaccine was “70% safe”.

“The vaccine covers 70% of cervical cancers. Would you go on a plane that was 70% safe? Smear tests will still be necessary,” he said.

We decided to take a look at his claim.

Flu The HPV vaccine is offered to girls in the first year of secondary school. . Source: Maurizio Gambarini/PA Images

The facts

HPV (Human Papillomavirus) is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections with most men and women contracting it at some point in their lives.

In most cases, the virus clears on its own and does not have any symptoms but in some cases it can lead to genital warts. In women, HPV can cause changes in the cervix which can lead to cervical cancer.

The vaccine is designed to prevent women developing cervical cancer in this way.

The HSE has come out vehemently against the intervention by Cullinan on the matter.

In s strongly-worded statement, Paul Connors of the HSE’s communications department said Cullinan’s “media outburst simply flies in the face of best available medical and scientific evidence”.

He has chosen certain statistics and repackaged them in a way to suit his particular narrative.  His miscommunication of information in this way puts the health and lives of women in Ireland at risk. This is unacceptable for a person in his position.

Source: WLR/SoundCloud

(Alphonsus Cullinan on WLR FM)

So what are these statistics and has Cullinan indeed “repackaged” them?

FactCheck previously ran an in-depth examination of the claims made by anti-Gardasil group Regret and found that there was no credible evidence for their claims.

The article also provided details about what the vaccine protects against. Gardasil protects against four of the 170 strains of HPV: numbers 6, 11, 16 and 18.

However, as is pointed out by manufacturer’s package leaflet and Ireland’s Health Protection Surveillance Centre, these strains make up at least 70% of the cases of cervical cancer caused by HPV.

Numbers 16 and 18 alone are responsible for 70% of cervical cancers, as well as 75-80% of anal cancers.


When Cullinan referred to the vaccine covering “70% of cervical cancers” he was partly correct in that figure but incorrect in conflating it with the safety of the vaccine.

The safety of the vaccine has been demonstrated by numerous scientific studies and reviews which found no difference between vaccinated and unvaccinated girls in the rate of what have been claimed to be serious adverse effects.

The 70% prevention figure is not related to the proven safety of the vaccine and the comparison is therefore irrelevant.

Therefore, the claim that the vaccine is “70% safe” is FALSE.

Read: ‘I am grateful I received the HPV vaccine and will be for the rest of my life’ >

Read: ‘I wouldn’t dare say don’t take the vaccine’: TDs on why they’ve asked questions about HPV in Dáil >

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