What you really need to know about the HPV vaccine
Earlier this week we published a piece about the HPV vaccine and the concern from a parents' group called REGRET. In response, we've reached out to Dr Robert O’Connor, Head of Research at the Irish Cancer Society, to clarify the facts and address the concerns of our readers.
This week is a momentous one for thousands of parents across the country as they send their children back to school, none more so than those sending their children to secondary school for the first time.
It’s a time of year where multi-tasking is key, as books and uniforms are bought, lunch boxes are packed, and school transport is organised.
But the parents of 30,000 girls beginning their first year of secondary school are faced with another key task – deciding on whether their daughter should receive the HPV vaccine.
Since 2010, more than 220,000 Irish secondary school girls have been offered the HPV vaccine, Gardasil, for free under the HSE’s national vaccination programme. The two-three dose inoculation protects against the major strains of HPV (Human Papillomavirus), which cause cervical and several other cancers, and is offered to first-year school girls each September.
Cervical cancer is a killer. While women of any age can develop the disease, it is increasingly common in younger women - often women who are young mothers, or at an age where they are embarking on a new family.
Despite all medical evidence as to the absolute safety of this simple preventative treatment, vaccination numbers have been dropping because of unfounded fears of links between the vaccine and illnesses in young girls which have been circulating, often on social media.
Because of the critical importance of this cancer preventative vaccine, and members of the public calling for real information to help inform their choices, the Irish Cancer Society held two public talks in Galway and Cork last week, which presented the facts about the vaccine from one of the top world experts in this field, Prof. Margaret Stanley.
The facts presented showed how we have the opportunity to largely eradicate a terrible form of cancer. This vaccine is safe, and a decade of monitoring of this vaccine has shown that it does not cause harm to our daughters.
Despite the actions of our world class cervical cancer screening programme, roughly 280 Irish women are diagnosed with invasive cervical cancer each year in Ireland (that is not far off one a day). It is estimated that more than 90 Irish women will die from cervical cancer this year (nearly two a week dying from the cancer that this vaccine helps prevent), while a further 6,500 will need hospital treatment to remove precancerous growths in their cervix.
The vaccine protects from strains of HPV that cause more than seven in 10 (70%) of all cervical cancers. If these women had received the vaccine, the vast majority would be spared such medical treatment. Most importantly, lives would have been saved.
The HPV vaccine arrived too late for Aoife Harrington to be offered it while in school. She was just 24 when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer two years ago. Having undergone a long and difficult treatment plan including surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, the Mayo native is thankfully currently cancer-free. She can finally plan her future again, but not all cervical cancer patients are so fortunate.
Through the media, and from listening to personal stories, the Irish Cancer Society has heard from families who have seen their young girls battle severe ailments that in many cases have left them bedridden.
The true stories they tell are harrowing, and as these parents search for reasons why their daughters have fallen ill, they conclude that the HPV vaccine was the cause. This conclusion understandably creates a fear around the injection.
While we all sympathise greatly with the real ailments these girls endure - what parent couldn’t - as a representative of the Irish Cancer Society, I have an obligation to present the facts, which show that the vaccine is safe.
How can we be so absolutely sure the vaccine is safe?
The conditions reported by these teenagers have been reported for decades - long before HPV, vaccination, indeed long before any public vaccination. They can strike males but particularly females at any age, and continue to do so, regardless of whether the person is vaccinated or not.
When such illnesses happen with a certain regularity, and you are vaccinating more than 30,000 individuals twice, it is a statistical inevitability that some will develop an illness in the days, weeks, and months around vaccination. Just because something happens to occur around the time of something else, does not imply any causative link between them.
The sheer scale of monitoring and checking of the safety of this vaccine by independent experts that continues unseen in the background for this medicine is staggering. Worldwide more than 200 million doses of the vaccine have been given to around 80 million people.
Recent studies from leading international medical agencies – groups who oversee the safety of every one of the medicines that we take – including the World Health Organisation and the European Medicines Agency, have concluded that Gardasil is safe and has no link to serious illnesses.
Every single health event reported by anyone (including things like car crashes) referring to those who have been vaccinated is continually logged and recorded and the rates constantly compared with the rest of the unvaccinated population.
All medicines can cause effects in some people. The HPV vaccine is a “needle” so, like MMR and every other common vaccine we get, many will feel pain from the injection. An ache in the muscle or an unwell feeling for a few minutes to a few hours is not uncommon.
There are very rare side effects, but the number and rate of these is incredibly low, and the risks of even the more common of these effects is much less than many things we do in our daily life, like being in a car or playing a sport.
As cervical cancer survivors spoke at our talks last week, they all had a common message to tell: if the HPV vaccine was available to them when they were in school, they wouldn’t have hesitated in taking it.
Imagine in the future that you could be the parent of an adult daughter, who has just received results from numerous invasive tests that point to the presence of a cancer in her cervix or other parts of her body. Through all of the tears, emotion and fear you learn that her best outcome after a prolonged series of invasive exhausting treatments on the most private areas of her body is that she will never be able to have children (your grandchildren) and the medical team will use the most modern medical technology to give her best chance of not dying, but they cannot guarantee this.
Think how you might feel if you remember that you're giving consent for her to receive two “needles” which you were offered at no cost to you, could have prevented that scenario. This safe vaccine is stacking the odds in favour of your children and grandchildren. In the myriad of worries of the future health of our children, this simple injection gives a small bit of comfort of one less thing that could strike them down.
If you are truly worried about vaccination for your child, talk to your own GP. They nurture and care for you and your family all of your lives. You trust them with that which is most precious, the health of you and your loved ones. They will steer you right on this issue too.