Laura Brennan’s lasting legacy: the HPV catch-up vaccine programme

Laura Brennan’s lasting legacy: the HPV catch-up vaccine programme

LAURA Brennan’s name will always be synonymous with the HPV vaccine, which she tirelessly campaigned for before dying from cervical cancer in 2019 at the age of 26.

Despite being desperately ill, the Clare woman urged young people to get vaccinated in her final months, saying her disease was “the reality of an unvaccinated girl”.

Four years after her death, the Brennan family continue her work by campaigning to create more awareness of the vaccine’s benefits.

“When Laura found out that her cancer was terminal, she swore to do anything she could to protect other people from what she was going through,” says her brother Kevin. “Her story was that of someone who was unvaccinated and she wanted parents to hear it and [put their children] forward for the safe and effective HPV vaccine. She joined the HSE campaign and by the time she died, the vaccine uptake rates had recovered [from 51% in June 2016] to 80%.

“After Laura died, we took up her advocacy as best we could. We heard from so many families and young people who were touched by Laura’s story and regretted not getting the HPV vaccine when it was offered to them. So, the Laura Brennan HPV vaccine catch-up programme was developed in response to that and we’re so proud that her influence lives on, still giving people an opportunity that she didn’t have.”

Tomorrow (March 4th) is World HPV (Human Papillomavirus) Day which aims to raise awareness of the virus that affects most people, male and female, at some point in their lifetime.

For the majority, HPV will resolve on its own, but for some, it can cause cells to divide and grow out of control, leading to cancer.

“We estimate it takes 10 to 15 years for active HPV infection to cause cervical cancer – and that is why, once we pick it up in screening, we monitor it closely,” says Prof Noirin Russell, clinical director of CervicalCheck.

“We hope that by giving women information about HPV, letting them know it causes more than 90% of cases of cervical cancer, and giving them details of how early vaccination and regular HPV screening can help prevent cervical cancer, we will help them make positive health choices.

“Ultimately, our aim is that this leads to a continued reduction in the number of women who develop this devastating cancer.”

Pictured speaking as the HSE launched the HPV vaccination programme for all first-year secondary school students including girls and for the first time boys was Kevin Brennan, brother of the late HPV vaccine campaigner Laura Brennan Pic: Marc O’Sullivan

Raising awareness

Currently, around 400 people are diagnosed with HPV-related cancer annually in Ireland, some 290 of which are cervical cancers.

Dr Sarah Fitzgibbon, primary care clinical advisor with CervicalCheck, says World HPV Day is an opportunity for healthcare professionals to raise awareness of the “really common human papillomavirus”, and the potential impact it can have on people’s health.

“There are hundreds of strains of HPV, and for most people their immune system will clear the virus naturally,” she says. “But prolonged, active infection with certain high-risk strains is known to cause cancers of the cervix, anus, vagina, vulva, mouth, throat and penis. For some people whose bodies can’t clear the virus, for whatever reason, it can lead to serious adverse health effects.

Some subtypes or strains of high-risk HPV which have been proven to cause cervical cancer are transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, such as oral sex, penetrative sex or even through the sharing of sex toys, says Dr Fitzgibbon

“But cervical cancer can be prevented and treated if detected early and managed well.”

To this end, Rachel Morrow, director of advocacy for the Irish Cancer Society, says it is vital for people to avail of screening when offered.

CervicalCheck invites anyone with HPV and abnormal cells for monitoring and intervention, “where necessary”, she says. “We know that in the 2020/2021 school year that about three in four first-year secondary school pupils received two doses of the HPV vaccine – while initial figures for the 2021/22 school year show around seven in 10 pupils got their second dose – and overall, we know that a higher proportion of girls tend to get the vaccine compared to boys.

“HPV is very common and affects men and women, so it is important that we inform parents and guardians so they understand the benefits of HPV vaccination for their child – girl, boy or non-binary – to reduce their risk of HPV-related cancers in the future.”

Larry and Bernie Brennan, parents of the late Laura Brennan, pictured with Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly at the announcement of the opening of the online registration portal for the Laura Brennan HPV Vaccination Catch-Up Programme.

90 deaths a year

Each year around 90 people die of cervical cancer in Ireland. According to Dr Laura Heavey from the National Screening Service, someone with cervical cancer, which was detected at screening, is more likely to have been diagnosed at an earlier stage than those who had not been screened.

“The National Cancer Registry of Ireland (NCRI) report shows that diagnosis at stage 1 is to be expected in 80% of women diagnosed as a result of screening, compared to 34% of those diagnosed with cervical cancer in the non-screened population,” she says.

“The availability of a high-quality HPV screening test to eligible women, along with HPV vaccination and early cancer detection and treatment pathways, means that making cervical cancer a rare disease in Ireland is a possibility – and Ireland is one of the first countries in the world to publicly declare our commitment to this lifesaving endeavour.”

SINCE January 2022, the HSE’s Cervical Cancer Elimination Strategy group, which includes the NCRI, has been working with researchers from the Daffodil Centre in New South Wales to estimate a date for cervical cancer elimination in Ireland. This involves using Irish data – for example, on screening uptake and HPV vaccine

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