Speech by Minister for Health Simon Harris at Launch of Vaccines for Life
**Check against Delivery**
I would like to thank the Irish Pharmaceutical Healthcare Association for inviting me here today for the launch of this important publication “Vaccines for Life”.
Clear and accurate information about vaccines and their benefits is vital and this valuable document will be a useful tool in the offensive we must all lead to counter many of the current myths concerning vaccination. I would like to acknowledge the role of the HSE’s National Immunisation Office and the Health Protection Surveillance Centre in providing information for this document.
Vaccination is rightly regarded as one of the safest and most cost-effective of all health care interventions.
The World Health Organisation estimates that up to 3 million lives are saved each year as a result of vaccination. All vaccines undergo long and careful review by scientists, doctors, and regulatory authorities to make sure they are safe.
Diseases that used to be common in this country and around the world, like polio, measles, diphtheria, whooping cough, Rubella, mumps and tetanus, can now be prevented by vaccination.
Vaccines are also helping us prevent the development of cancer. The Hepatitis B vaccine given as part of the 6 in 1 vaccine in the Primary Childhood Immunisation Programme helps prevent cancer of the liver caused by Hepatitis B infection and the HPV vaccine given to school girls can prevent the development of cervical cancer caused by the Human papilloma virus.
In Ireland currently the Primary Childhood Immunisation Programme vaccinates children against 13 serious infectious diseases. I was extremely happy to announce the introduction of the Meningococcal B and Rotavirus vaccines into the schedule at the end of last year and I look forward to more new developments in the future.
I’m glad to say Ireland’s uptake rates for many vaccines in the Primary Childhood Immunisation Programme are close to the WHO uptake target of 95%. However challenges remain and complacency would be a fatal error.
In recent years, due to the success of our programme, many vaccine preventable diseases have become so infrequent that we have lost the collective memory of how serious some childhood illnesses can be. We cannot become victims of our own success.
For some, the perceived, often misconceived, risks of vaccines now outweigh the risks of these forgotten infectious diseases.
This is a clear and present danger. We know what can happen from our own fairly recent experience. The scare surrounding the MMR vaccine in the 1990s resulted in a large reduction in uptake rates for this vaccine. In January 2000 a large outbreak of measles occurred in Dublin and resulted in more than 100 children being hospitalised, 13 children required intensive care treatment, and there were three measles related deaths.
We are now, as all of us here today know and must address, facing a similar situation with respect to the HPV vaccine. Unfounded, false claims have been made of an association between HPV vaccination and a number of conditions experienced by a group of young women. There is no scientific evidence that the HPV vaccine causes any long term illness. However, this misinformation has led to a significant drop in uptake rates of the HPV vaccine. This means that a large cohort of girls are now at risk of developing cervical cancer later in their lives.
Despite the availability of free and effective vaccines, a small number of people make the personal choice not to vaccinate themselves or their children in the belief that vaccines are unsafe or no longer necessary. People need to be aware that a personal decision not to vaccinate has a wider public impact.
Such a decision may put their own life and that of their child at risk, and it may also put at risk other vulnerable individuals that they come into contact with – people with a reduced immunity such as sick and elderly vulnerable patients, pregnant women or small babies who have not yet completed all their vaccinations.
On that note, I want to take this opportunity to talk about the seasonal influenza vaccine and the disappointingly low uptake of this vaccine among health care workers in Ireland.
This was an element of the Winter Initiative campaign this year and, as a result, we did see an increase in uptake rates compared to previous seasons and some units achieved or exceeded the target of 40%. However, the national rate fell far short of the target of 40%. As people who care for sick and vulnerable patients, and who I know take their duty of care very seriously, I want to encourage everyone in our health service to make it a priority to receive the flu vaccine every year.
Finally, a word to parents: I know you want to do everything possible to make sure your children are healthy and protected from preventable diseases. Vaccination is the best way to do that. I understand that you may feel anxious about vaccinating your child especially when you hear or read alarming stories about side effects of vaccination. I would urge any parent who has doubts or questions about vaccination to engage with your family doctor, or alternatively to visit the National Immunisation office website. These sources of information are clear and accurate and will answer any queries you may have about the benefits or risks of vaccination.
We must always remember that we all have a public health commitment to our communities to protect each other and each other’s children by vaccinating ourselves and our own family members.