Shout­ing at par­ents and call­ing them names while they have a sick child at home is never go­ing to win hearts and minds

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE - LOS­ING THE ON­LINE AR­GU­MENT

in­tro­duc­tion set the pro­gramme back, say­ing it be­gan dur­ing a “huge groundswell of pos­i­tiv­ity”. Dr Cor­co­ran squarely at­tributes the fall­ing up­take rates to a sus­tained cam­paign on so­cial me­dia.

In this arena — where sto­ry­telling, opin­ion and hy­per­bole drive mass au­di­ences — the State body has found it­self floun­der­ing.

“The pro­gramme was go­ing very well,” Dr Cor­co­ran says of the HPV vac­cine’s in­cep­tion. The sup­plier for the vac­cine used in Ire­land is Merck and the brand is Gar­dasil.

“Around that time [2014/15] there were a num­ber of par­ents who got to­gether in groups who were con­cerned, hav­ing seen in­for­ma­tion from other coun­tries, par­tic­u­larly Ja­pan and Den­mark, where there were girls who claimed that they had de­vel­oped long-term med­i­cal con­di­tions as a re­sult of the vac­cine.

“A num­ber of groups were very ac­tive on so­cial me­dia, with schools, with par­ents, in all dif­fer­ent ways, to give them what they said was in­for­ma­tion that we were not giv­ing them.”

The most prom­i­nent of those groups is Re­gret, a par­ent-led vac­cine-in­jury sup­port group formed in 2015.

Re­gret’s Face­book page pro­motes a video se­ries called Sac­ri­fi­cial Vir­gins, made by the UK As­so­ci­a­tion of HPV Vac­cine In­jured Daugh­ters (AHVID) and anti-vaxx group SaneVax Inc.

Sac­ri­fi­cial Vir­gins: Not For The Greater Good is the first of a three-part doc­u­men­tary and has 30,845 views on YouTube. Part two, Pain and Suf­fer­ing has 9,365 views, while part three, A Penny For Your Pain has ac­crued more than 3,000 views in just a few weeks. All fea­ture footage of girls who say their health has been af­fected by the vac­cine.

This style of com­mu­ni­ca­tion was branded “emo­tional ter­ror­ism” by HSE boss Tony O’Brien but it does carry an im­pact.

Sac­ri­fi­cial Vir­gins’ dra­matic, heart-wrench­ing style is in con­trast to an­other video, also on YouTube, from the HSE. I’m Re­lieved That She is Pro­tected fea­tures an Ir­ish mother who can­celled her daugh­ter’s vac­cines af­ter hear­ing scare sto­ries. She then de­vel­oped cer­vi­cal can­cer and had her daugh­ter vac­ci­nated. It has earned 3,198 views in three months.

Sto­ry­telling videos have enor­mous in­flu­ence on­line, a link borne out on the HSE Face­book page where a 2016 post di­rect­ing read­ers to in­for­ma­tion about the vac­cine gets these replies: “Not a hope in hell of my girl get­ting this af­ter the video I seen and shared about those girls that lives are de­stroyed.”

An­other writes: “Thanks to the raised aware­ness on so­cial me­dia ... we stopped our daugh­ter from re­ceiv­ing the sec­ond in­jec­tion.”

While an­other com­menter says: “I’m so glad I read this thread to­day as my daugh­ter is due to get vac­cine to­mor­row but af­ter read­ing com­ments and some re­search not any­more. If there’s a chance of any­thing hap­pen­ing to her I say no…”

Dr Cor­co­ran says she em­pathises with the fam­i­lies in­volved but says it’s wrong to at­tribute their symp­toms to the vac­cine. “There is no doubt that the girls who have been im­pacted, who have these long-last­ing con­di­tions, are ill. It may take some years for them to get bet­ter and that’s dev­as­tat­ing for the fam­i­lies.

“Un­for­tu­nately, in some cir­cum­stances, there are no an­swers to say, ‘this is the cause of your daugh­ter’s ill­ness’. There are, and there have al­ways been, these chronic fa­tigue-like syn­dromes that have been known for over 200 years that do hap­pen in teenagers, and more com­monly in girls. They have hap­pened be­fore the vac­cine was in­tro­duced, it hap­pened to girls who’ve been vac­ci­nated and it hap­pened to girls who’ve not been vac­ci­nated.

“No med­i­cal prac­ti­tioner or health ser­vice wants to do any­thing that would harm any­body. If there was any scin­tilla of ev­i­dence that there was an is­sue with any vac­cine, that is taken ex­traor­di­nar­ily se­ri­ously and in­ves­ti­gated at the high­est level. All the ev­i­dence that has been looked at in re­la­tion to long-term side ef­fects has shown that there is no long-term con­di­tion that is linked to the vac­cine.

“It’s ex­actly the same as the is­sue we had with MMR and autism, which tends to be di­ag­nosed around the age we give the MMR vac­cine,” Dr Cor­co­ran adds.

In 1998, Bri­tish sci­en­tist An­drew Wake­field falsely linked the MMR jab with autism in a now widely dis­cred­ited re­port, caus­ing vac­ci­na­tion rates to plum­met.

“All the sci­en­tific ev­i­dence, look­ing at mil­lions of peo­ple, found no link be­tween MMR and autism but par­ents are look­ing for a rea­son. The up­take rate dropped from al­most 90pc to 69pc and even now, 17 years later, it’s only at 93pc, be­low the tar­get of 95pc. “That’s the dif­fi­culty we have…” Ali­son ad­vises clients in times of cri­sis to look for the op­por­tu­nity and the HSE is do­ing just that, to guard against this hap­pen­ing again.

“This isn’t go­ing to go away,” Dr Cor­co­ran con­cedes. “Vac­cine scares take a long time for pub­lic con­fi­dence to re­cover so we will have to con­tinue with what’s been started in terms of per­suad­ing par­ents and all health pro­fes­sion­als of the value of vac­cines…

“What we have to do is build up what’s known as ‘vac­cine-re­silient pop­u­la­tions’ in good times, so peo­ple are aware of the benefits, and that passes through from school right through to when they them­selves have chil­dren.”

Ul­ti­mately, though, Dr Cor­co­ran knows it will be par­ents and guardians over the com­ing months who turn around the for­tunes of the HPV vac­cine; clearly many need to be con­vinced.

“When you’re weigh­ing up whether to vac­ci­nate your daugh­ter, or any other child with any of the other vac­cines, weigh up the in­for­ma­tion,” she urges. “The over­whelm­ing ev­i­dence is that any vac­cine is a much bet­ter op­tion.”

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