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Irish parents are stopping their children from getting a cervical cancer vaccine - but why?

Public health professionals are blaming recent negative media coverage for the drop in uptake.

Image: Shutterstock/DreamLand Media

DOCTORS RECENTLY PASSED a motion calling on the HSE and the Department of Health to help them convince parents of the need to get their children vaccinated.

This is following on from reports from public health doctors that there has been a drop off in the number of people willing to sign their daughters up to a vaccine that can help to prevent cervical cancer.

At the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) annual conference two weeks ago, public health doctor Ann Hogan tabled the motion which was unanimously passed.

Dr Hogan said that she had noticed in her area that there had been a significant drop-off in the number of parents willing to sign their children up to receive the second dose of the vaccine at the beginning of this year.

This she attributed to recent media coverage, which highlighted cases that linked the vaccine to a number of side-effects.

Late last year, various media outlets (including this publication) highlighted the cases of over 130 girls and their families who claimed that their daughters had become ill after having received the vaccine.

The parents and their daughters, many of whom are members of an advocacy group named REGRET (Reactions and Effects of Gardasil Resulting in Extreme Trauma), also had their efforts to find out what was the cause of their daughters’ illnesses chronicled in a documentary entitled Cervical Cancer Vaccine: Is it Safe?, which aired on Tv3 on 14 December.

On 3 December 2015, representatives appeared before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children. Their concerns and issues were raised in the Dáil by TDs including Maureen O’Sullivan and Michael Moynihan.

“Our lives were never the same following the Gardasil HPV vaccination of our daughters, with years taken from them, their parents, siblings and grandparents,” REGRET spokesperson Anna Cannon told the committee in her opening address.

We have been given no answers, guidance, or hope.

anna cannon Anna Cannon speaking at the Oireachtas Committee Source: Screengrab via Youtube

The group says that their children were never the same after having received the vaccine, and that their concerns have been ignored by the medical establishment.

The medical establishment, for their part, deny that the vaccine has anything to do with these illnesses.

So what is the HPV vaccine and is it safe to give to children?

The HPV vaccine

There are two common HPV vaccines available for use in Ireland – Gardasil (which is the official vaccine used by the HSE) and Cervarix.

They protect against specific types of the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) – a common virus that generally spreads through sexual contact with an infected person.

There are over 100 viruses that fall within the HPV group, and while many are relatively harmless and don’t require treatment, two types (16 and 18) cause seven out of 10 of all diagnosed cervical cancers.

Gardasil helps to prevent against these types of HPV and as a result helps to prevent cervical cancer in women.

Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer in women in Europe. It kills an estimated 100 women in Ireland every year and an estimated 250,000 worldwide.

Following recommendations from the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (NIAC), which advises the State on vaccines, the HPV vaccine (Gardasil) was introduced to the national immunisation programme.

It has been offered to girls in first year in secondary school since September 2011.

9/12/2013. Launch Immunisation Guidelines Dr Kevin Connolly of the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (NIAC) (File Photo) Source: samboal

It is estimated that almost 200,000 girls in Ireland and more than 80 million girls and women worldwide have received the vaccine.

It is currently in use in over 25 European countries, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Denmark switched from using Gardasil to Cervarix in recent years. Japan also removed the vaccine from general use following complaints about possible negative side-effects (however, these have yet to be independently linked to the vaccine).

“I suppose we have noticed in the area where I work in the Mid-West, [that] a number of parents have withdrawn consent for a second dose of HPV vaccine this year,” Dr Anne Hogan told TheJournal.ie.

Now I have spoken to a number of parents… and most of them are referring to media coverage of the vaccine linking it to chronic after-effects.

For Dr Hogan, however, as with the vast majority of doctors, there is no question: Gardasil helps to prevent cervical cancer and saves lives.

11/2/2016 Irish Medical Organisation Press Conferences Dr Ann Hogan with colleagues at a press briefing in February Source: Mark Stedman

Despite anecdotal evidence of a number of chronic conditions and illnesses said to be linked to the administering of the vaccine, there has never been a proven cause and effect link.

The safety of the vaccine has, for example, been confirmed The World Health Organisation, which states:

Data from clinical trials and initial post-marketing surveillance conducted in several continents show both vaccines to be safe.
Its safety has also been confirmed by The European Medicines Agency (The EU body responsible for monitoring the safety of medicines being used in Europe)

It carried out a review of evidence surrounding a link between the HPV vaccine and two illnesses commonly associated with it - complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS), and postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS) – and found no link.

The Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety which regularly carries out reviews of vaccines’ safety, has also stated that Gardasil is safe.

In a March 2014 review it said:

While safety concerns about HPV vaccines have been raised, these have systematically been investigated: to date, the GACVS has not found any safety issue that would alter any of the current recommendations for the use of the vaccine.

The safety of the vaccine has also been assured by Ireland’s National Immunisation Advisory Committee, the HSE, and the Health and Products Regulatory Authority.

It has been defended by the medical establishment in Ireland as well as in the Dáil by the Minister for Health.

In statements to TheJournal.ie, the HSE and the Department of Health both reiterated their support for the vaccine, stating that it was proven to save lives.

The illnesses

The fact remains, however, that over 150 Irish girls (up to as many as 320, according to REGRET) and their families have come forward in recent years with claims linking the Gardasil vaccine to chronic after effects and long-term illnesses.

Many of these accounts are highlighted on the REGRET website, and in general they outline the stories of previously healthy and active young girls who became ill after having received the vaccine and who never properly recovered.

In a statement to TheJournal.ie,  TV3 said that their documentary was “a balanced look at the HPV vaccine”.

The question around its safety is asked within the documentary due to the growing number of young girls in Ireland who feel that their symptoms are directly related to the vaccine.

Among these families’ many concerns, they generally state having key issues with:

  1. The lack of aftercare following the vaccine being administered.
  2. The fact that they weren’t supplied proper information prior to giving permission that their daughters receive the vaccine.
  3. The fact that they are not listened to or taken seriously by health officials.

cervical-vaccine-is-it-safe-abbey-colohan2 Abbey Colohan, who believes the HPV vaccine is to blame for her illness. Source: TV3

When asking a parent’s permission for their child to be given Gardasil, the HSE provides a leaflet with information on the vaccine as well as a list of potential common side-effects. It also refers them to the HSE website for further information.

The REGRET group have repeatedly asked for a more comprehensive information leaflet to be provided, and members state in numerous interviews and testimonies that in many cases the side-effects experienced by their daughters are listed on the original product information leaflet from the manufacturer, but not in the HSE handout.

The full list of possible side-effects is also provided on medicines.ie. It includes (among others):

  • Swollen glands
  • Aching muscles
  • Unusual tiredness or weakness
  • bleeding or bruising more easily than normal
  • muscles weakness
  • Tingling in the arms, legs and upper body
  • Confusion (Guillain-Barré Syndrome, Acute disseminated encephalomyelitis).

Despite the alarming nature of many of these side-effects, they are listed as “side effects that have been reported during marketed use”, meaning that they were not reported in clinical trials but only since the vaccine has become available for public use.

As explained on the UK NHS website:

It is not possible to reliably estimate how frequently other side effects occur. This is because information is received from people reporting side effects themselves, rather than controlled, clinical tests.

The rarest side-effect reported from clinical trials (fewer than one in 10,000) is restriction of the airways and difficulty in breathing.

Other effects reported to be linked to the virus are chronic fatigue syndrome and the above mentioned CRPS and POTS.

However, again, after much controlled research there has been no causal link established between these illnesses and the Gardasil vaccine.

Vaccine safety and testing is an ongoing concern for medical agencies and governments around the world. It is always being reviewed and updated.

As always stated, no vaccine is entirely safe, but at this stage there is no scientific evidence to suggest that Gardasil shouldn’t be administered.

There is no proven indication as of yet that the illnesses recorded in people who have received the Gardasil vaccine are any more frequent than the same illnesses in the wider population.

So is Gardasil safe?

Frequently studies are used to try to prove the ill-effects of Gardasil.

However, many of these studies fail to properly outline their methods, are not properly controlled and and are improperly peer-reviewed.

One website frequently used to back up claims about the dangers of the HPV vaccine is Sanevax.org, which purports to deliver unbiased studies which show the harmful effects caused by its administration.

However, a number of these studies are not scientifically sound. For example, the top study on the page was removed from the US Government’s public research website (PubMed) for “serious concerns regarding the scientific soundness”.

Again, it is the wide-ranging studies, supported by the main health bodies of the world, that lead the charge in terms of research into the vaccine.

Dr Ann Hogan firmly believes in the effectiveness and the safety of the HPV vaccine.

“This is a vaccine that helps to prevent cancer of the cervix,” said Dr Hogan.

If we have a vaccine that can prevent up to 70% of cases of cancer of the cervix I think it is a shame if young girls can’t avail of it and be protected if protection is available.

For the dozens of families and young girls that say the vaccine has ruined their lives, however, the answers aren’t so clear cut.

Dr Hogan states that illness and conditions like chronic fatigue syndrome can have no clear cause and can difficult to understand – however, as she repeatedly states:

There is no scientific evidence that links these conditions with the HPV vaccine.

Those who feel their lives are ruined in the wake of receiving the vaccine may never find the answers that they are looking for; however as long as Gardasil is proven to save lives by preventing cancer, and as long as studies continue to show that it is safe, then health professionals will advocate for its continued use.

Read: Teenage girl reportedly suffered fit in school after getting HPV vaccine

Read: Testing women for virus spread by skin-to-skin contact during sex might help detect cervical cancer

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About the author:

Cormac Fitzgerald

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