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The safety and efficacy record of the HPV vaccine has been vigorously defended by health authorities both here and abroad. However, the significant impact that fear is having, following reports from parents whose daughters have become ill after vaccination, despite no causality being established, is now clear.
Parents are becoming increasingly worried about exposing their children to perceived risk, despite medical reassurances, and are choosing to turn away from HPV vaccination, and it is now feared this will spread to other vaccination programmes.
The medical community has been accused of being “fraternalistic”, “patronising” and ignoring patients’ concerns in its response to the HPV vaccination crisis. The days when patients hung on every word that came out of their doctor’s mouth are long over and nowadays patients are putting ever-increasing trust in Dr Google and online forums.
While the independent drive for increased knowledge is welcome, it is the sources of the HPV vaccine ‘information’ that are most worrying. People can and do say almost anything they want online, and hysterical, untrue and ill-informed comments are now being taken as fact by those seeking information on HPV vaccine safety. Any stories online defending the safety of the vaccine are being overrun in the comments section by negative posts. There are plenty of Irish healthcare workers online — should they add their voices to such comment sections?
The media, for its part, walks a dangerous tightrope when reporting on HPV vaccine fears, trying to strike the correct balance of reporting the concerns and anger of parents who feel their experiences are being dismissed and covered up, with the medical facts known to date. Unfortunately, some media have not upheld the standards of balance, accuracy and objectivity that all of us in this industry have a core duty to uphold.
It is vital that doctors and other healthcare experts have their voices heard in this debate. Dr Brenda Corcoran from the HSE’s National Immunisation Office is to be commended for speaking authoritatively and factually to the media on the impact the current scare is having on HPV vaccine rates and reiterating the results of the clinical studies to date. We need more medical voices to come out and talk publicly about this subject. It is not easy sometimes in the face of anti-medical sentiment, but need we forget the impact of previous vaccine scares such as the MMR/Wakefield scandal?
In this issue, we look at the role vaccination has had on bringing polio to the edge of eradication. For younger generations who have not witnessed the devastating impact preventable diseases can have, it is a timely, positive reminder of the power of mass vaccination.