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Simon Harris to meet social media companies in a bid to make them do more to debunk vaccine myths

Harris is considering advice from the Attorney General on mandatory vaccination.

Simon Harris wants to meet with the social media companies in relation to  debunking vaccine myths.
Simon Harris wants to meet with the social media companies in relation to debunking vaccine myths.
Image: Niall Carson

HEALTH MINISTER SIMON HARRIS has said he will write to social media companies this week to seek a meeting with them over the promotion of vaccination information. 

Speaking at the launch of the HPV vaccine for boys today, the minister said social media companies, many of which are based in Ireland, need to do more to debunk vaccination myths.

HPV stands for Human papillomavirus. It’s a family of viruses that can infect the skin and mucosal membranes of humans, and cause common warts on our hands and feet. In some cases, it can develop in a way that leads to cancer, including cervical, anal, oropharyngeal, penile, vaginal, and vulval cancer.

There are over 200 types of HPV: 40 of which can infect the genital tract. Of these 40, 13 are considered to be high-risk or capable of causing cancer. 

HPV is transmitted primarily by direct skin-to-skin genital contact during sexual intercourse. 

Harris said the social media companies need to “make sure their mediums are not used to spread lies” in relation to the HPV vaccine and other vaccines such as the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella).

“This week, I intend to write to all of the social media companies and invite them to come and meet me in the Department of Health with my medical advisors, and with the National Immunisation Office to look at how they can play a responsible role,” he said.

The minister said technology is an incredible resource, but he said social media and the internet “can sometimes be used for disinformation or misinformation”.

He acknowledged that a number of the social media companies “have stepped up to the plate” and have said that they will crack down on misinformation being spread that is factually incorrect. However, unfortunately, not all of social media companies have, he added.

“I think it would be particularly appropriate and that I would meet with them as health minister, and see what more they can do. I think they have a responsibility in this regard,” said Harris.

In announcing that the HPV vaccine will now be extended to all first-year boys from next month, the minister also confirmed that he has received preliminary advice from the Attorney General in relation to mandatory vaccination being rolled out in Ireland. 

Advice on mandatory vaccination

In April, Harris asked the Attorney General Seamus Wolfe “to formally seek his legal advice in relation to the issue of vaccination”.

At the time the minister said:

I do feel very strongly about it, I do think there’s something irresponsible, and that is against the public good sending an unvaccinated child to a public school or to a crèche or into a public place where they can make other children sick – particularly young babies who are too young to get vaccinated.

Earlier this year, Italy reinstated a law banning children from attending crèches and nursery schools if they have not been vaccinated.

Parents in Italy, as well as in a number of other countries, face fines for not vaccinating their children.

Harris said he is still considering the legal advice from the AG on the issue and will discuss the matter further with his ministerial colleagues.

He acknowledged that there are a number of competing rights at play with mandatory vaccination, stating that obviously children have the right to an education.

“I think it is fair to say that we absolutely can do some things and there are other things that are more challenging to do legally,” he added.

Dáil motion on vaccinations 

Next week, the minister said he intends to launch the new Vaccine Alliance group, made up of policy makers, patient advocates and others, to push back against misinformation.

In the month of September, Harris will also put down a motion supporting childhood immunisation programmes.

He said he expects all members of the Dáil and Seanad to support the motion.

Later in the week, the minister will also travel to Brussels for a global vaccination summit.

The minister appealed to parents to seek out factual, scientific and medical research when informing themselves about the HPV vaccine.

“If your car was broken down, you wouldn’t let anyone fix it other than a mechanic, you wouldn’t send your child to school to be taught by anyone other than a teacher. You really need to get medical advice from medical professionals. And that’s really my plea to parents. As parents, we all want to do our best by our kids, we all want to make the right decisions. The people who are qualified to help us as parents make informed decisions are healthcare professionals,” he said.

He added that HPV.ie is a reputable source of information that he encourages parents to visit.

“Of course, any questions, any queries, talk to your doctor, talk to your pharmacist, or talk to the school immunisation teams as well. But this is the vaccine that’s been so widely tested,” he added.

“I think that’s an incredible gift for any parents to give to their child, the idea that you can make the decision today to vaccinate your child and could prevent them getting cancer in the future.”

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