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'I won’t ever be able to understand exactly how the HPV vaccine works. So as a parent I have to trust the experts'

The desire to protect and care for your child is indescribable, writes Eric Nolan. And that means doing your best to keep them safe.

BECOMING A PARENT is the most wonderful thing that happens to many of us.

That moment when you first get to meet your child is truly life changing. Nothing prepares you for the complete change in perspective and life that they bring with them.

The desire to protect and care for them is indescribable.

It’s hard to remember what I did with my time before. Life is so much busier now but I wouldn’t change a thing. I don’t think I’m in any way unique in this.

Caring for and guiding the most important people in our lives as they grow up is often a complex task. We have to make numerous decisions for them, most of them important.

It can be choosing a school, picking sports and other activities or ensuring they are eating good foods (which is a daily battle), to name but a few. We need to be able to make informed choices on such diverse things. It’s hard to imagine any other job that requires such a variety of knowledge.

Impossible to be an expert

I don’t think it’s humanly possible to be an expert in it all. And yet we do the best we can. We have to decide which sources and people to trust and take advice from. What choice do we have?

As a species, humanity has reached a very advanced level of knowledge. Academics and Scientists have amassed such a depth of information. It is continually advancing.

Medicine in particular has made huge strides. If you had been born in 1900 there is a good chance you wouldn’t have lived to 50. Nowadays it is not at all unusual to see 80. This hasn’t happened by accident. There are numerous factors involved but clean water and improved medicine are widely accepted as the main drivers.

The unforeseen drawback of such a vast advancement has been a growing mistrust of the actions that result from this knowledge. This particularly applies to vaccines.

Taking the US as an example, without the polio vaccine 10,000 children would be paralysed from polio. Diphtheria would be the most common cause of death in school aged children.

Pertussis would kill thousands of infants. Rubella would cause intellectual and developmental disabilities and birth defects in as many as 20,000 newborns. And yet there is a growing rejection of vaccines in the developed world.

It’s hard to trust what we don’t understand

On the surface it’s hard to make sense of it. But I think it’s a natural result of our stage of advancement. It’s hard to trust what we don’t understand. Most of us are not scientists. When faced with conflicting information about vaccines we are in a difficult position.

Our decision of whether to vaccinate the most important people in our lives is a weighty one. I think it’s really important that we avoid demonising those that decide against vaccinating. The vast majority of parents are genuinely trying to make the best decision for their children. In this case they are wrong, but their motivation is not.

The HPV vaccine is the most controversial at present. ‘A cure for cancer’ has been one of the biggest goals for medical science. Cancer has touched so many families and lives. It is now widely accepted that we are very unlikely to see one magic bullet that eliminates cancer. It comes in too many forms.

If we are to ‘cure’ cancer it will be by many smaller interventions. And to throw in another truism, prevention is better than cure.

The link between Human Papillomavirus (HPV) and cervical cancer has been proven. It is estimated that 70% of cervical cancers may be prevented by vaccination.

In Ireland, about 300 women are diagnosed with invasive cervical cancer each year. Over 90 women die. This year the ongoing cervical screening scandal has highlighted so many of these cases.

When first launched in Ireland in 2014/15 the uptake rate for the HPV vaccine was 87%. This dropped to 50% in 2016/17 but rose to 62% last year after a strong information campaign. It needs to keep increasing.

Humanity has long strived to eliminate cancer, and now that we have a tool to bring us in this direction, people are rejecting it. I think it’s about trust. I know that I won’t ever be able to understand exactly how this and other vaccines work. So as a parent the decision I make will be based on where I place my trust.

Do I trust well-meaning non-scientists who base their mistrust of vaccines on anecdotal perceptions of ‘side effects’ that occur at the same time as vaccination? Those who assume correlation equals causation? Or do I trust an entire profession who have spent their lives rigorously seeking to eliminate disease and suffering? A profession that engages in lengthy clinical trials that are repeated to ensure accuracy?

To be clear, I am absolutely not calling into question the motivation of parents. We do our best in a very challenging role.

I am also not saying people are not unwell. I am saying I will choose to place my trust in the experts. It’s by far the best bet. When you are faced with this decision, I urge you to do the same.

Eric Nolan is a father of three living in Midleton. He works in Cork Airport’s Police and Fire Service. He is the Labour Party’s Local Area Representative for Cork East.

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