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Listening to the news on the first Sunday morning of the month, expecting to hear news of the latest Trump debacle, Brexit updates or impeding nuclear war, I was dumbfounded to hear instead of a more regional headline, that of the junior Minister for Health, Finian McGrath and his comments made to a Sunday Times journalist, affirming his earlier position of doubt and scepticism over the HPV vaccine Gardasil.
Some may be aware that last year Minister McGrath (when an Independent TD and not receiving a Ministerial wage) called for the vaccine to be withdrawn “as a matter of priority”, apparently motivated by concerns expressed by parents in his constituency over its safety. He also notably called on then Minister for Health Leo Varadkar to support the group known as REGRET who, as most readers will now be aware, campaign vocally against Gardasil and claim it is directly linked to as-yet unexplained medical symptoms and illness among some teenage girls who have been vaccinated. REGRET is very active across social media and has gained sizeable traction and coverage across mainstream media, with their claims attracting the attention of prime-time radio and TV personalities and, possibly most damaging of all, prominent politicians. This, I have no doubt, has had a significant impact on influencing public and parental attitudes towards the HPV vaccination programme — uptake rates have fallen sharply, from over 80 per cent during the programme’s introductory phase in Ireland, to now approximately 50 per cent in eligible age groups.
Whatever the cause of this decline, it can surely be no coincidence that the aforementioned negative social media and mainstream media coverage and contradictory messages being offered to parents from public figures such as Minister McGrath have heightened, while vaccination rates have consistently fallen. It also now signals that we as healthcare professionals are going to have to engage in educating our patients from an unenviable ‘damage control’ position versus that of active and opportunistic health promotion. Prominent healthcare professionals are now having to offer personal testimonies and evidence their support for the vaccine by telling the public how they have vaccinated their own children. The ‘as a mother myself’ effect appears now to have to be relied on, in addition to evidence and logic.
Well, as a (new) mother myself, I have observed with some horror over the last year or so as politicians and public personalities appear to make capital out of the natural concerns of worried parents and seek to undermine doctors over what is a proven safe and life-saving vaccine for young women. Politicians across all party lines have consistently used the facility of parliamentary questions to ‘raise concern’ on ‘behalf of their constituents’ on the issue of Gardasil safety, some going further than others, most notably Minister McGrath.
It is interesting that his constituency of Dublin North has one of the highest rates of cervical cancer nationally. It is interesting further still that Minister McGrath, as far as I know, has not used his position to question issues such as waiting lists for gynaecology appointments for these same constituents, instead consistently publicly questioning a national immunisation policy which, given his Ministerial brief and responsibility, he is meant to support.
Of course, Minister McGrath has ‘form’ in the area of railing against public health policy and appearing to lean towards personal motives. He has previously called for a relaxation of the smoking ban (he is a smoker himself), only to be afforded the opportunity to row-back on his comments and retain his publicly-funded position. Indeed, after he was ‘spoken to’ by Minister for Health Simon Harris in the wake of his most recent controversial comments, he declared that with regard to the HPV vaccination programme, he would fully support Government policy. Until the next time maybe?
A further report by The Sunday Times highlighted how he has to date not sought to contact any HSE representative to obtain information to allay the concerns of the aforementioned parents whom he claimed motivated his earlier calls for the HPV vaccine programme to be halted. To me, this is the most damning aspect of the entire debacle and highlights the challenges we as healthcare professionals now face in the era of ‘alternative facts’. Prominent public figures who can command a captive audience now appear to not be bothered to do their homework before planting seeds of doubt in the public’s mind and to hell with the consequences. It is not only disappointing that we have a Minister in the Department of Health who will fly contrary to accepted evidence-based health policy, it is highly damaging and embarrassing.
I wonder whether these politicians know any woman who has lost her life or had it severely affected by a diagnosis of cervical cancer, a disease of young women and which we know the vaccine has been demonstrated internationally to prevent.
I wonder where he, and those who have echoed his publicly-voiced doubts despite a lack of any supporting evidence, will be in the next 15-to-20 years when we are inevitably facing an increase in the number of deaths from and diagnoses of high-grade cervical cancer in this country? Will they continue to hide behind the veil of ‘I was only raising the concerns of my constituents, your honour’ or will they accept that their words have had a far-reaching legacy? I suspect all we will have instead is a damning radio silence, while patients and families are left to suffer and healthcare staff pick up the pieces. There is no vaccine to protect us from that, unfortunately.