I think I first became aware of the “discussion” around the HPV vaccine before I was really aware of what HPV was. I was around 19 at the time, and being a 19 year old boy does tend to result in a combination of fecklessness and ignorance when it comes to reproductive health. However, I did care about the lack of integrity among the right wing media, because the priorities of teenage boys are absolutely fucked.
At the time, the the ultraconservative rag and toilet paper-substitute Daily Mail was using its Irish edition to campaign for the introduction of the HPV vaccine, while in their UK edition, campaigning for it to be banned. In my mindset at the time, it was an eye-opening lesson in the cynical manufacture of outrage, willful media deceitfulness, the power of emotional parents and the ingrained depths of the anti-vaccine movement. It took a few years for me to put together the final piece of what it represented — the absolutely callous treatment of the health of women.
As it happened, Ireland did end up introducing a free vaccination programme, rolled out to girls as soon as they start second-level education. So a happy ending, right? The right decision was made, so why am I even writing this?
Two things emerged in the media this week. One of them was the startling decline in uptake that happened this year — last year 90% of girls took the vaccine. This year, the rate is around 50%. The second one is that some of our fine politicians decided to open their mouths. Suggesting that what they spewed forth was bullshit is an insult to cattle anuses.
The firestorm was sparked off by Mattie McGrath. To give some background, Mattie McGrath is the second worst politician in Tipperary, and not for the want of trying. Having built himself up as a parish-pump messiah, he was suspended from Fianna Fáil for his attempts to keeping stag hunting, of all things, legal. He then accused the Green Party of bullying him (The Green Party couldn’t bully a sickly infant) and became an independent in order to save his seat. He is a paranoid, anti-choice, litigious, pro-drink driving old man. He is also very, very good at getting elected.
In response to the declining uptake in HPV vaccinations, the head of the HSE, Ireland’s health service, accused anti-vaccination campaigns (such as REGRET, an organisation which, by its own admission, cannot produce a scrap of evidence to support its claims) of engaging in “emotional terrorism”. While the turn of phrase is a bit over-the-top, it does distill the tactics espoused by these groups — concerned parents telling tragic, emotionally-charged anecdotes, which are essentially impossible to refute without coming off as callous and dismissive.
Mattie McGrath, being the reasonable person that he is, immediately called for the head of the HSE to be fired, and was backed up by the philanthropist and in no way dangerously paranoid person Jonathan Irwin (Irwin set up a legitimate charity for disabled children, but his opinions about everything are unequivocally terrible).
Finian McGrath — no relation, but also a parish-pump maestro in his own right — decided to join in today, releasing this absolutely bizarre statement, effectively defending the anti-vaccination pressure groups. The misery of this is compounded by the fact that he’s currently the Minister of State for Disability Issues. And the worst part still is that this is a moderation of his prior stance, which he shared with Maureen O’Sullivan — a full ban of the vaccine, based on REGRET’s emotionally manipulative non-research.
Both McGraths were called out aggressively by the third worst politician in Tipperary, Alan Kelly, and appear to have earned a well-deserved bollocking from an increasingly frustrated Minister for Health Simon Harris (this is the first and likely last time I’ll be praising Harris, so enjoy it while it lasts). Since earlier today, the junior minister has done a U-turn.
Of course, this is a politically necessary U-turn; his ministerial position is untenable if he tries to fight Harris over this. What both McGraths expressed in relation to the HPV vaccine initially seem to be their genuine views, and that’s bad enough.
But I’m not willing to give even that lame defense. What this is is pure political cynicism. Outraged parents vote, and these statements must be read as an attempt to keep a perceived bloc onside, the health of girls be damned. It’s a deliberate, conscious decision to do what they think is best for their own careers. They weighed up the options and decided that they would rather push for a few short-term votes than save women from cancer. That’s completely unconscionable and frankly, they should both piss off forever.
Initially I had just thought of this as being idiotic, self-serving reactions of a couple of old men, but a female colleague of mine went digging into the Dáil records. She knew better than I did the way women’s health is treated, and that there was more to this that has bubbled under, across political lines, for years. And like some kind of nerdy Taylor Swift, came up with the receipts.
What she uncovered was a bundle of parliamentary questions posed by TDs about the HPV vaccine, most of them couched in the most intellectually cowardly terms of “just asking questions” on behalf of “concerned parents”. It’s important to understand that PQs do not and should not act as a way of chucking a lobby-group agenda into the Dáil, and TDs are under no compunction to ask on behalf of any group. But so many of them chose to pick this specific thing — the HPV vaccine — as what they wanted to use their limited speaking time to address. This comes back to the earlier mentioned cynicism, looking to grab a few more votes and attack the government. A depressing number of TDs, both from the left and the right, made the call that political advantage was worth undermining the health services provided to women, and any danger to their seat was more pressing than the danger of people dying of cancer. Even more depressingly, a good proportion of them are themselves women. A selection of these are below — there are genuinely too many to reproduce them all here.
First off, let’s loop back to the aforementioned Alan Kelly. The Labour TD, ever skilled at grabbing the media’s attention, came out all guns blazing, calling on Finian McGrath to resign, and condemning Mattie McGrath in pretty strong terms. Kelly is completely correct in everything he’s said on this. There’s one small issue though — his party doesn’t seem to agree.
Here’s Brendan Ryan, a man who survived Labour’s 2016 electoral wipe-out mostly because everyone forgot he existed in the first place. Look at this intellectually dishonest nonsense. While Finian McGrath called it as he saw it (albeit very, very wrongly), the very brave Brendan either decided to hedge his bets, or was so stupid he got completely suckered in by the lobby groups’ “just asking questions” shtick. He called for an investigation into the vaccine, which might be reasonable if the vaccine hadn’t been subject to a vast number of trials and investigations already, and it wasn’t already comprehensively proven to be effective. It’s a neat trick though. Don’t make the direct pitch, but start undermining confidence via insinuation. It needs more investigation (not study, but investigation). Why do we investigate things that have been proven to work? When we have good reason to suspect they’re wrong. Which we don’t have. But for Ryan, women dying of cervical cancer is a risk he’s willing to take.
His Labour colleague Anne Ferris suggested (again, with no evidence to substantiate it) that there was some violation of consent going on with the voluntary immunisation programme. She echoed anti-vaccination language to discredit the entire operation, making an incredibly serious accusation despite there being zero violations of consent taking place. Egregiously irresponsible, and grossly insensitive to people who have suffered very real violations of medical consent doesn’t even begin to describe her statement. I will not waste any further space on Anne Ferris’ comments except to say this: Anne Ferris is a fucking idiot.
Let’s stay on the left, with Sinn Féin. Here’s Kathleen Funchion doing another sneaky thing. This is a leading question — not really asking anything, but being used to level an accusation, an to establish a narrative that there is an injustice being done. Honestly I could have taken one of a half-dozen other statements from Funchion, for example calling for redress and suggesting that public inquiry may result, both of which presuppose the conclusion that the HPV vaccine is dangerous and responsible for severe damage. Labour’s Willie Penrose, for what it’s worth, has done exactly the same thing. This is, of course, completely unsubstantiated. Funchion goes further than Ryan — she has straight up stated that the vaccine has resulted in “serious medical difficulties”.
Her colleague Martin Kenny managed to go one better here, insinuating that there is some vast medical conspiracy on behalf of doctors, designed to silence dissent and hush up adverse effects. Of course, it somehow doesn’t occur to Kenny that the reason doctors don’t acknowledge the connection between the vaccine and serious medical conditions is that there is absolutely no medical or scientific proof of this being the case. But again, it’s easier to stand up and point to some vast, nebulous, non-falsifiable conspiracy of silence than to deal in facts. It’s easier to pander for votes on the basis of a made-up danger than it is to dismiss these lobby groups for what they are and address the real and present danger of cervical cancer.
Next, here’s Clare Daly, who has been one of the busiest TDs on this topic. This is a shame — while I disagree with a lot of her stuff, Daly is a genuinely hard-working, principled representative. She has been repeatedly and deliberately shafted in recent years by both her opponents and her colleagues, her appalling judgement in supporting serial tax-evader and corrupt-developer-turned-TD (did I mention that this country is doomed? This country is doomed) Mick Wallace notwithstanding. But on this one, she has nobody to blame but herself. Daly has hit every bum note on this — citing REGRET, calling for a review, implying there is a high financial cost of treating people after vaccination, suggesting that because one vaccine in the past turned out to be not very good, this one should also be abandoned and so on. She also appears to have read this paper. It’s ironic that vaccine opponents rail against industry-funded study while clearly referring to a study funded by the profoundly anti-vaccine Dwoskin Family Foundation, but whatever. Daly should know better, and there’s a good explanation of why her “the vaccine puts aluminium into your brain!” scaremongering is completely wrong here. Daly’s use of this in the Dáil is completely irresponsible. At best, it’s a misunderstanding of science, at worst its an abuse of it. Either way, Daly wasn’t bothered to do any further research once she felt she had an adequate stick to attack the government with.
Finally on the left, Ireland’s newest party, the Social Democrats, also had something to say. Gary Gannon probably should have checked the Dáil records before shooting his mouth off on Twitter, because like Alan Kelly he’s unwittingly at odds with his own party. Catherine Murphy suggested that the Minister meet with REGRET, despite their continued failure to provide any evidence in support of their demands. It grants the same false legitimacy that other TDs’ PQs did, suggests that this is a lobby group worth engaging with, and lays down frankly dangerous insinuations about the health service refusing to release important information, albeit in a smarter way than the tactless Martin Kenny did. Her SocDem colleague Róisín Shortall has asked similar, both TDs bowing to the pressure of the lobby group and trying to shove anti-vaccine scaremongering onto the agenda.
The right is just as bad. Indeed, it’s probably worse because the two biggest parties in the state are both on the right, and are the only ones to have led a government since 1932. Couple this with the right-wing independents who frequently row in with them and the toxicity of the situation becomes even more apparent. Nearly every party seems to have TDs that believe they can gain some votes by pandering to anti-vaccination lobby groups, and are happy to not care about the health of women in order to do so (while ironically claiming that they are acting in the interest of women’s health).
Fianna Fáil are a funny old party. It’s worth remembering that they led the government that introduced the HPV immunisation programme in 2010, and were right to do so. But FF have never met a populist bandwagon they didn’t want to hop on. You don’t win any prizes for guessing who the “organisation” that Marc MacSharry is referring to, or for guessing what he’s trying to achieve by getting anti-vaccine lobbyists a meeting with the Minister. His colleague Séan Fleming tried a similar stunt, getting Harris to respond to a letter from an “organisation”. Both were shut down pretty quickly, but this is classic FF. If a constituent wants you to waste everyone’s time by raising whatever they ask i the Dáil and you reckon there’s a vote in it for you, you go for it.
But wait! There’s more from FF. John Browne reckons there should be an investigation, that schools are a bad venue (as opposed to the only one that actually works when trying to ensure accessibility) and waving his hands in fear at “fast-tracking”, whatever he means by that. Billy Kelleher and Michael Moynihan demanded answers be furnished to the lobby groups, although their concerns have been addressed dozens of times by Harris and countless times by the scientific community. Robert Troy discovered that the HPV vaccine contains borax and proceeded to not shut up about it, falling into a trap where anti-vaccination groups point to a scary sounding chemical and rely on ignorant people who have no understanding whatsoever of chemistry to panic on their behalf. Robert Troy does not appear to be particularly educated on this matter, yet still felt confident enough to raise it in the Dáil multiple times.
While FF might be the party that introduced the programme, Fine Gael are the party currently running it. So it would be natural that they would support it, right? Sort of. There’s been a tendency from the likes of Noel Rock to ask softball questions that allow Harris to defend the vaccine on his own terms, which makes absolutely zero strategic sense, and means that the issue continues to be debated even when opposition TDs aren’t regurgitating crap anti-vaccination talking points. But then there’s Tony McLoughlin. That 73.3% rate he mentions seems pretty damning, right? Two problems. Firstly, that just means someone got sick later on; it does not imply causation. Secondly, in the paper he cites, next to the 73.3% figure, there’s the one for the placebo used as a control. It’s 76.3%, a full 3% higher than the group exposed to the HPV vaccine.
There are four possibilities here: (1) Tony McLoughlin never read the paper he’s citing. (2) Tony McLoughlin did read the paper but didn’t understand even the most basic concepts in it. (3) Tony McLoughlin did read the paper but deliberately chose to ignore contents that didn’t agree with what the anti-vaccination lobby groups told him. (4) Tony McLoughlin is, in fact, illiterate.
The scary part here is that scenario 4 is the one that looks the best for him. In any other scenario, he’s either willfully ignorant, deeply stupid or straight-up lying (or a combination of the three). Again, this is a member of the Irish government, is too gullible to tell when he’s being misled, too lazy to read the material, or too desperate to pander to give the slightest shit about the consequences of his words. And who suffers the consequences? Vulnerable young women whose health is at risk, whose parents will be discouraged from vaccinating them, and who will then face a greater risk of cancer.
Most parties have been represented above. Honestly, I’m pleasantly surprised that Mattie McGrath’s fictitious bullies, the Green Party, didn’t appear in any of the comments my colleague dug up. This is especially true given the absolute headcases running around outside of Ireland and the party’s previous dalliances into paranoid junk science. It’s nice to see that at least one party isn’t being influenced by these dangerous anti-vaccine lobby groups and is making the grown-up assessment that the health of constituents is more important than pandering.
Overall, I’m glad. I’m glad we have this vaccine. I’m glad it’s free. I’m glad we are doing what we can to protect women and girls against life-threatening diseases (and yes, if practical, we should also offer boy and men the same vaccination). I’m glad Simon Harris has the balls to stand up to emotionally manipulative lobby groups and colleagues. I’m glad the Green Party and the AAA-PBP are avoiding this giant mess.
But I’m also embarrassed. I’m embarrassed that our politicians are this cynical. I’m embarrassed of the views they hold, I’m embarrassed of their gleeful willingness to expose their constituents to long-term risks for their own short term gain. I’m embarrassed at the continual disregard shown for the health and welfare of women in this country.
And finally, I’m sad. I’m sad that there is no vaccine that can prevent this kind of ruinous stupidity.