Cancer vaccinations for teens shelved over cost
THE Government last night reversed a major decision to introduce life-saving cervical cancer vaccines because of the worsening state of the country's finances.
Adding to the Government's list of controversial measures amid the continued budget fallout, Health Minister Mary Harney was last night the subject of robust criticism after shelving plans to introduce a vaccine for some 26,000 12-year-olds next September.
Following recent reversals on medical cards, income levies and disability payments, last night's U-turn prompted furious responses from Opposition parties which argued that the Health Information and Quality Authority (HIQA) had estimated that the vaccines would only cost €10m.
The Human Papillomavirus Vaccine (HPV), which was only announced in August, prevents girls from contracting a virus which can cause cervical cancer in later years.
But last night, Health Minister Mary Harney said that because the economic situation had "rapidly and seriously deteriorated", the Government would not be proceeding with the introduction of the vaccination programme in September.
Instead, the introduction of the vaccine is now "on hold".
Declining to outline the exact costs of introducing the vaccine, her spokesman said the costs were "not insubstantial".
In a stinging attack on Ms Harney, Fine Gael's James Reilly said the decision dealt a "shocking slap in the face to anyone who believes in prevention".
Currently, cervical cancer is the eighth most frequently diagnosed cancer in women in Ireland. In 2004 alone, 200 women were diagnosed with cervical cancer, while more than 90 died of the disease.
"I do believe it's false economy. It will cost the economy more in treatments down the line and furthermore there could be legal issues down the line if somebody felt they had contracted an illness which the State could have prevented with proper care and attention," he said.
"I think this Government has shown that they can be particularly callous. The Minister has so many times said one thing and done the other. The Government's credibility is zero at the moment."
He argued that an assessment of the financial situation had been undertaken by the Taoiseach and Finance Minister in July, leading Ms Harney to announce one month later that there was a budget for the vaccine programme.
Sinn Fein's Caoimhghin O Caolain described the decision as "disgraceful" and another attack on public health by a Minister and a Government whose stewardship of our health system has been disastrous.
Defending the decision to put the vaccine on hold last night, Ms Harney said she had decided that the best that can be achieved in these circumstances is to prioritise funding for the development of the cervical screening programme and treatment services at the eight designated cancer centres.
"I will not therefore be proceeding with the introduction of a HPV vaccination programme," she said.
When the vaccine was announced in August for 12-year-olds, Ms Harney ruled out a "catch up" vaccine programme for 13- and 15-year-olds because of budgetary pressures. The Minister said she would be entering a tendering process with pharmaceutical companies, and hoped to secure an 80pc take-up among parents of 12-year-olds.
The second hurdle would be to ensure that the vaccines can be provided on a "cost-effective" basis given the "tough year" ahead for the country's finances.
Last night, a spokesman said that there had been discussions with companies about the costs of the vaccine and the administration of the programme.
However, because the vaccine had only been announced in August, there had not yet been "substantive engagement".