The uptake rate of the HPV vaccine has increased by 15% over the last year, provisional figures from the HSE have revealed.
Human papilloma virus (HPV) is a family of viruses that are so common, around 80% of Irish men and women will get it at some point in their lives.
There are many types of HPV, most of which are harmless and go away on their own. However, some strains can be serious, such as those that cause certain types of cancer and pre-cancerous lesions.
For example, HPV is the main cause of cervical cancer, which kills around 90 women in Ireland every year. Most risk is attributable to HPV types 16 and 18, however, these are included in the HPV vaccine that is offered to all girls in their first year of secondary school.
This national HPV vaccination programme has been in place since 2010, but according to the HSE, over the last few years, uptake rates have fallen significantly due to conflicting and misleading sources of information.
However, with vaccination teams now in schools to administer the vaccine to first-year girls, the HSE has said that uptake rates have increased from 50% to 65% over the last year.
According to Dr Sean Denyer, interim head of the HSE National Immunisation Office, this increase is ‘extremely encouraging'.
"We know this vaccine is safe. We know it works and we are now seeing the majority of parents throughout the country move to protect their daughters. We understood that parents wanted to do the right thing for their children, so we set out to provide them with scientifically and evidence-based information.
"We encouraged them to speak directly with the school vaccination teams, their local GPs and their local pharmacists. We provided a trusted source of information through hpv.ie and clearly they have responded," he noted.
He said that as the new school year begins, the HSE is now reaching out to a new group of first year girls and their parents.
"We are inviting them to access information through those same trust sources and encouraging them to ensure their daughters are vaccinated. We are also reminding parents that a catch-up facility is available so anyone who may have hesitated previously can contact our schools teams and get their daughter vaccinated," Dr Denyer explained.
Meanwhile, HPV vaccine patient advocate, Laura Brennan (25) from Clare, who has terminal cervical cancer, has reiterated her support for the campaign. According to the HSE, her advocacy has been ‘pivotal to the ongoing success in achieving higher vaccine uptake rates'.
"My only reason for getting involved in this campaign was my desire to save other families from going through what mine are going through, to save other parents from watching their child suffer from a preventable illness, caused by a virus which the majority of people in this room have had or will have at some point in their life. I was just unlucky that I caught a cancer causing strain of the virus and my body couldn't fight it off. That's why I got cervical cancer," she explained.
While welcoming the increase in uptake rates, she said that 65% is still not enough.
"But I do understand that that figure is likely to rise once all the figures are validated. As everyone knows I won't be happy until as many of our girls are protected as possible. But it is going in the right direction. It shows that once again the people of Ireland are listening to reason and using reality and evidence as a basis for their decision making," she said.
She noted that her cancer is getting stronger and she is getting weaker, but she insisted that she will not stop until her body does.
"I'm facing my death and the reason is a virus that your child doesn't have to get. I'll be gone in a few years. Once I'm gone there is nothing more I can do about it so I hope you all listen to me while you have the chance," Ms Brennan added.
The Minister for Health, Simon Harris, commended Ms Brennan for her ‘selfless advocacy' in this area. He also urged parents to avail of the vaccine for their daughters.
"I would like to remind parents that it is not too late for your daughters to get the vaccine. Any parents who have reconsidered their decision and are seeking the vaccine for their daughters can use the HSE catch-up service.
"Our next step will be extending the national immunisation schedule to include HPV vaccination of boys. The Health Information and Quality Authority (HIQA) is undertaking a health technology assessment (HTA) on this. A public consultation has just been completed and HIQA is expected to submit the final recommendation following its Board Meeting in November," Minister Harris said.
He added that subject to a favourable recommendation from the HTA, the Government would seek to extend this vaccine ‘universally as a priority'.
For more information on the HPV vaccine, click here
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