MINISTER FOR HEALTH Simon Harris has today said that he was “very disappointed and frustrated” at concerns raised by Minister Finian McGrath about the HPV vaccine. However he stated that, after conversations with his colleague, he is reassured that McGrath “fully supports” the programme.
McGrath, a super junior minister at the Department of Health and a member of the Independent Alliance, has come under fire for his stance on the rollout of the vaccine. The Irish Cancer Society described the TD’s stance as “dangerous and irresponsible”.
Yesterday, McGrath released a statement about the situation, after a report in the Sunday Times said he called for the vaccine, Gardasil, to be banned before he was appointed to Cabinet last year. He had raised concerns over the vaccine when in opposition last year.
“I stand over the fact that I raised it because concerned parents asked me to raise it,” McGrath said in the wake of the publication of the Times article.
HPV, which can be contracted by physical contact, particularly sexual contact, can lead to a number of cancers, including cervical, penile, throat and anal cancers in men and women.
The seven-year-old vaccine programme to protect girls against contracting HPV has seen uptake rates fall from 90% at its peak to 50% last year – prompting strong warnings from the HSE.
As this FactCheck from TheJournal.ie found, all scientific evidence – in Ireland and internationally – has pointed towards the vaccine being very effective and very safe. However, campaign groups have questioned the safety of the vaccine, claiming it has caused illnesses in hundreds of teenage girls and young women in Ireland.
While condemning his comments, government ministers are also defending McGrath, stressing that they believe that he is on board with the government’s support of the vaccine.
“He has assured me as Health Minister that he fully supports the vaccination programme and I’m very pleased that this lunchtime he’s made contact with the Irish Cancer Society to convey his support for the vaccination programme,” Harris told reporters today.
Earlier, Minister for Education Richard Bruton said that he did not believe McGrath should resign from the Department of Health after raising the concerns.
Speaking at an event in Dublin, Bruton said that he was confident McGrath had “corrected the impression that was put out there that he was in some way opposed to this approach”.
Bruton dismissed any concerns about the safety of the vaccine:
I think Finian did make comments in opposition when he raised concerns but I think the government is absolutely satisfied that those concerns are without foundation.
McGrath said in his statement yesterday that he stood over concerns raised to him by concerned parents, but added that he accepted that “such vaccines are a very important part of government health strategy”.
His stance was described as irresponsible” by the Irish Cancer Society, and “extremely damaging” by Labour’s Alan Kelly.
The Irish Cancer Society said that the Dublin Bay North TD “needs to take responsibility” and must “publicly make clear his full and unwavering support for the national HPV vaccination programme”.
It said that all scientific evidence pointed to the safety and efficacy of the vaccine, and that it was incumbent on all government ministers to take a unified approach to ensure that “the uptake rate of the life-saving HPV vaccine is increased and to ensure misinformation about the vaccine is dispelled”.
Today Bruton said that the government’s position on the vaccine is “very clear”.
That the evidence is very strong and that this programme should be fully supported, and will be fully supported, by every member of government.
Speaking to RTÉ News yesterday, McGrath said:
“We [referring to Harris] have different views but we are very united on the whole issue of public safety and the safety of the vaccines.
My emphasis is, as well as having safety, we need to ensure that questions are constantly asked in relation to medicines and vaccines that come on the market. That’s my job as an independent. I’m probably slightly different in relation to that aspect of it.
He said that would continue to ask questions, but was supportive of the government’s HPV vaccine campaign.
Speaking to RTÉ’s Morning Ireland today, Alan Kelly said McGrath had been “irresponsible in the extreme”.
“As a Minister in the Department of Health, the amount of commentary he has now generated is completely irresponsible for someone in his position to generate.
I find it extraordinary that he’s admitting there in that clip that he has a different position to the Minister as regards the vaccine and getting advice… I’m not 100% convinced he’s in favour of this vaccine.
Every year in Ireland, 300 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer – and of that number 90 women will die of the disease. It’s hoped that HPV could eventually be eradicated if uptake rates are maintained at high levels – but uptake is decreasing.
Bruton today said that the decrease “is putting young women at risk unnecessarily”.
On Wednesday last, the HSE launched an information pack and website about the vaccine aimed at reversing the decline in the number of girls getting it. The HSE said the decline was due to the spread of misinformation.
With reporting from Gráinne Ní Aodha, Orla Ryan and Sinead Baker.