Irish Times – 19 January 2010
Focus now switches to information campaign to encourage support for cervical cancer scheme, writes ALISON HEALY
IT HAS BEEN labelled “the U-turn on a U-turn” but Minister for Health Mary Harney’s announcement that the cervical cancer vaccine programme will go ahead after all has been welcomed by experts and parents alike.
The Government’s original plan to provide the vaccine to teenage girls was shelved in November 2008 on cost grounds. But Harney said the cost had now been reduced from €16 million to €3 million. The free HPV vaccine will be administered in three doses to 30,000 girls in first year in secondary school in the coming months.
As it will require parental consent, the focus has now switched to the information campaign planned to encourage parents to support the programme. Harney said vaccinations would begin before the summer and would be administered by public health doctors employed by the HSE and by nurses.
The co-inventor of the HPV vaccine, Prof Ian Frazer, said the authorities would be up against the clock in delivering a thorough public information campaign and rolling out the vaccine before summer. Prof Frazer, of the University of Queensland, Brisbane, said the Australian government gave the go-ahead to the vaccine programme in October 2006 and the programme began the following February, which was considered to be “really quick”. He said the difference between a good and bad vaccination scheme hinged on the quality of information offered to the public.
Prof Frazer is in Dublin to deliver the Irish Cancer Society’s Charles Cully memorial lecture today. He is delighted that the programme will go ahead here and he urged the authorities to ensure that people are fully informed about the vaccination programme before their consent was sought.
The vaccine was introduced in Northern Ireland in September 2008 and after one year, 89 per cent of eligible girls had received the first dose, with 85 per cent and 83 per cent receiving the second and third doses. A “catch-up” programme targeting older girls is also run but this has been ruled out by Harney on the grounds of cost.
Rose Tully of the National Parents’ Council (Post Primary) says the majority of parents will discuss the matter with their doctors before making a decision. “And I would hope that the majority would make an informed decision and opt for the vaccination.” She said parents are faced with many decisions on vaccines, but urged them to look at the merits of each vaccine separately.
Jackie O’Callaghan from Bandon, who has two daughters aged 20 and 25, said the vaccine had come too late for them but she encouraged parents to consent to the programme. “It’s definitely well worth doing,” she said.
The Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA) also urged that parents be targeted in an information campaign and that misinformation be corrected. The death of Natalie Moron in Britain sparked an alert last year as she had got the vaccine hours before collapsing. But her inquest found she had a malignant tumour in her chest and the vaccine was not a contributory factor.
IFPA chief executive Niall Behan said it was “really important” that misinformation about the vaccine be addressed.
An Irish Cancer Society spokeswoman said emerging evidence confirmed the vaccine’s safety. She said one study had found that, for every 100,000 doses, only 53 adverse events were reported and these were largely minor.
Seventy to 100 women die from cervical cancer in this State every year and some 250 to 300 new cases are diagnosed. Consultant oncologist Prof John Crown says the impact of the vaccination programme will be clear around 2022, when a decline in the incidence of cervical cancer becomes obvious.
Meanwhile, the focus on cervical cancer will continue next week, which is European Cervical Cancer Prevention Week. The IFPA will team up with the Irish Hairdressers’ Federation to deliver badges, posters and leaflets about cervical cancer to some 330 salons around the State.