The Oireachtas Health Committee has been told by a senior Health Service Executive director that chocolates could be used as an incentive to encourage nurses to get the flu vaccine.

Assistant National Director for Health Protection Dr Kevin Kelleher said giving chocolates to nurses would provide an incentive to get them to take up the flu vaccination.

He was addressing the committee on the problem of getting nurses to take up the vaccine.

"What works is you need to have leadership in the institutions ... and leadership from the nurses themselves".

"Incentives work, ranging from giving them chocolates, chocolates work very well.

"Draws for iPads work very well in improving the uptake," he said.

He said the difficulty was predominantly with "nurses' attitudes" towards flu vaccination.

The General Secretary of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation reacted angrily to the comments, saying it was a perfect example of why Irish nurses and midwives walked away from the Irish health sector and another example of someone, distantly removed, being condescending, patronising and insulting to nurses and midwives. 

Liam Doran said that kind of comment was totally objectionable and Dr Kelleher should respect nurses' opinions and not treat them like children.

He told RTÉ's Today with Sean O'Rourke that there is a firmly-held view among midwives and nurses that they do not wish to avail of the vaccines.

He said the uptake is very low and this needs to be worked on, but that professionals in the field have expressed reservations about it, which he respects.

Leadership means not only dictating, but listening, he said, adding that nurses' concerns are not being listened to. 

"One thing I won't have, and I'll never accept, is someone in that kind of position speak in such a patronising and insulting way to people, who just won't do what he wants them to do."

The Head of the Immunisation Office at the HSE said the flu vaccine uptake among healthcare workers this season has actually increased by 50%.

Dr Brenda Corcoran said it has been achieved by each hospital's flu committee, which includes senior nursing representatives, using initiatives which have already proved to be effective.

Health committee told of effectiveness of vaccinations

The Department of Health has said that vaccination is regarded as one of the safest and most cost-effective of all health care interventions.

Dr Colette Bonner, Deputy Chief Medical Officer at the Department of Health, told the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health today that the World Health Organization estimates that up to three million lives are saved each year as a result of vaccination.

She said that all vaccines undergo long and careful review by scientists, doctors and regulatory authorities to make sure they are safe.

Routine immunisation programmes began in Ireland in 1932.

Dr Bonner said that participation in immunisation programmes in Ireland is voluntary and in the case of childhood vaccines, requires parental consent.

She said that Ireland's immunisation policy is influenced by the policies that are developed through the WHO for the European region.

The Health Committee is hearing from various health authority representatives on vaccination uptake and safety.

Dr Bonner said that there is no scientific evidence that the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine causes any long-term illness.

She told the committee that misinformation has led to a significant drop in uptake rates of the vaccine for girls.

Dr Bonner said that this is posing a risk to a large group of girls developing cervical cancer later in life.

She pointed to unfounded claims made of a link between the HPV vaccine and a number of conditions experienced by a group of young women.

Dr Bonner said that due to the success of the vaccination programmes, many vaccine preventable diseases have become so infrequent that "we have lost the collective memory" of how serious some childhood illnesses can be.

She said that for some, the perceived risks of vaccines now outweigh the risks of these forgotten serious infectious diseases.

MMR scare resulted in lower uptake of vaccination

The committee has heard that the scare surrounding the MMR vaccine in the 1990s resulted in a large reduction in uptake rates for the vaccine.

January 2000 saw a large outbreak of measles in Dublin and resulted in more than 100 children being hospitalised, 13 requiring intensive care treatment and three measles related deaths.

Dr Bonner said a number of European countries are reporting large measles outbreaks - Romania, Italy and the UK.

Last year there were 40 cases of measles reported here, related to three imported cases from Europe.

She told the committee that a personal decision not to vaccinate has a wider public impact.

Dr Kevin Kelleher, HSE Health Protection Surveillance Centre, said that HPV vaccine uptake which was at 87%, has dropped due to vaccine safety concerns and is now estimated at 50% for this year.

The uptake of the flu vaccine has remained at around 55% for people aged 65 years and older and less than 20% for pregnant women.

Professor Karina Butler, chairperson of the National Immunisation Advisory Committee of the RCPI said that no medicine or therapy can be 100% safe.

But she said that the benefits of vaccination far outweigh any very small risks.

She said doctors need to communicate better these messages.

Sinn Féin health spokesperson, Louise O'Reilly said that the low uptake of vaccination among health workers would not fill people with confidence and asked why this was.