I’ve pondered quite a bit whether or not to write about Mary Harney’s decision to halt the provision of the HPV vaccination to girls aged 12 years, a reversal of a decision made last August. The vaccination, in case you’re living on planet zog, has the potential to prevent cervical cancer. Cleverly announced on the day of the US elections (hmm, wonder what will generate more media interest), the news revolted many and has been lambasted at length from many sources.
But I feel I have no choice, after hearing the Minister being interviewed by Ray D’Arcy on Today FM this week. During the course of the interview, Harney twice made the point that a young girl won’t pick up the virus if she’s not sexually active and if a young girl is sexually active at a younger age she’s more likely to contract the virus. Now I’m not sure if any of you heard the interview but I really felt there was a hidden implication that a young woman who avoids promiscuity has nothing to worry about from the virus that leads to cervical pre-cancer which ultimately leads to cervical cancer. But you try explaining to a wild young teenager who can’t wait to grow up that she might possibly contract a virus that will not demonstrate any symptoms if she does decide to have sex. Come to think of it, even if the vaccine is administered when the girl is 12 and she doesn’t become sexually active until she’s in her twenties, it will still protect her from harm.
The Minister has a €1.6 billion purse to spend on health every year and although I fully accept that her shopping list is a wide and varied one the €16m required to implement the vaccination programme still seems like a drop in the ocean. Just one thousandth of her budget could and undoubtedly would save a life, possibly of a little girl that you know. Maybe it’s your child, your niece, or maybe it’s the baby that you’re carrying in your own womb right now.
Harney has repeatedly made the point that all women who receive the vaccine would nonetheless have to be screened and hence the implementation of a cervical screening programme introduced earlier this year for all women in the 25-50 age bracket is far more urgent. Though she has consistently denied it, the Minister does seem to be suggesting in a round-about way that it’s a choice between screening and vaccination. She’s also trying to dwell on the point that the vaccine does not protect a woman from all of the strains of the HPV virus. But it is a proven way of reducing the cervical cancer incidence rate.
During her lifetime, a woman will be called an estimated 11 times for a pap smear test under the new screening programme. A woman is under no obligation to attend those appointments and I’m sure there are many who will not bother with one or more of them, perhaps because it’s a hectic time in her life or maybe because she’s not educated enough about the virus and aware of its consequences. The Department itself has estimated that the screening programme will save about 80% of those who develop the disease. However a vaccination programme administered in schools (albeit with the consent of parents) would ensure each and every young girl was protected against the dangerous strains 16 and 18 of the virus, regardless of her background. Statistics suggest a woman is 2.6 times more likely to contract the virus if she lives in a disadvantaged area.
As I’ve said, I wouldn’t take a present of Harney’s job. The health services are crying out for reform and I’d say the Minister is being pulled in all directions for funding allocations. During the course of the interview, the Minister referred to the fact that the nurses who were intended to administer the vaccine in schools were currently tied up dealing with the backlog in MMR and Pneumococcal vaccines, which my fourteen month old son received just last week. She more or less questioned whether we, the listeners, would prefer she let these vaccines slip by the wayside and hence endanger the lives of infants and toddlers from a range of killer illnesses. She also said securing the funds for the cervical cancer vaccination programme would mean taking them from another worthy cause, such as speech therapy for children. As a parent, these are stark decisions that I have no wish to make. But they’re not my decisions and the attempts by Harney and indeed other Government Ministers to put those decisions back over onto the voters is just clever and grossly unfair politician-speak, an attempt to divert from their attempt to put the health of 27,000 young girls at risk in order to balance the books.
Asked whether the cancellation of the vaccine programme would result in the death of any woman in Ireland from cervical cancer, Minister Harney has categorically stated “No”. Yet ringing in my ears was the nursery rhyme which explained the consequences of one seemingly simple act through its lyrics… ‘And all for the want of a horse shoe nail’. The rhyme was devised to encourage children to apply logic to the consequences of their actions. Perhaps Minister Harney should do likewise.