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