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Image / Editorial

Research shows 65 percent of Irish people do not know HPV can cause cancer


by Erin Lindsay
22nd Mar 2018
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Following several years of decline, the latest HSE figures have shown that there has been an 11% increase in the number of girls getting the HPV vaccine in Ireland. The figures are now at 62%, up from 51% last year.

Medical experts have said that the public fears about side effects of the vaccine are unfounded, but they have made their mark. At one point the number of Irish girls getting the vaccine was at more than 80 percent but this fell due to a campaign of opposition by some parents, who allege that the HPV vaccine is to blame for their daughters’ chronic illnesses, despite there being no scientific evidence to support the claim.

Almost all (non-vaccinated) adults will have the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) in their lifetime, but the level of public knowledge around what the virus is and its effects is worrying. Research conducted by Behaviour & Attitudes and commissioned by MSD and published in The Irish Times has shown that 65 percent of Irish people do not know that HPV can cause cancer. The research also found that 87 percent of Irish adults believe they have never or will never be exposed to the HPV virus.

HPV is a sexually transmitted infection and can cause health problems like genital warts. It can be transferred through penetrative, oral and anal sex, and condoms do not always protect against its transfer.

Most HPV infections go away by themselves, but when they don’t, they can progress to cause certain types of cancer, like cervical cancer in women, penile cancer in men and anal and oropharyngeal (mouth and throat) cancer in men and women. These cancers can take years to develop and might not be diagnosed for a long time after the person has first been infected with HPV. There is no way to know whose HPV infection will be temporary and whose will develop into cancer.

Every year in Ireland, 335 women and 85 men are diagnosed with HPV-related cancer. Up to 130 of those die from such cancers.

With this, it’s important to get checked regularly for HPV, but this poses another problem. Currently, there is no approved test for HPV in men and women must rely on smear tests, which can only be availed of for free after the woman has turned 25. This leaves a large amount of young, sexually-active people in Ireland in the dark.

This is why the HSE and doctors around the country are campaigning for schoolgirls and their parents to be more informed about the HPV vaccine and its benefits, and why they should avail of the free vaccine scheme. If the vaccine is received before a person is sexually active, it can prevent the development of HPV, which is why it is offered to girls in their early years of secondary school. There have been calls to roll out the free vaccine programme to boys as well as girls so that both can be protected from the virus.

Dr Brenda Corcoran, head of the HSE’s National Immunisation Office spoke to Morning Ireland this morning about the statistics and said that Ireland should be looking to other countries’ successes with the vaccine. “We know that in countries such as Australia and Scotland where they have very high uptakes, they’ve already seen a huge impact, they’ve already seen an up to 75% reduction in these pre-cancers that you must have to develop cancer. So we need to get the uptake higher,” she said.

According to the Irish Cancer Society, every year in Ireland, 300 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer – of those women, 90 will die of the disease. If uptake of the HPV vaccine continues to grow, it’s hoped that the virus could eventually be eradicated from Ireland.

The HSE is the nation’s governing body for public health. Its information on the HPV vaccine has been guided by the World Health Organisation and the National Immunisation Advisory Committee. If you have questions or concerns regarding the virus, the vaccine or cancer, head to their website.

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