'Now my son can also get the HPV vaccine'

Laura Brennan’s name will always be synonymous with the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine which she tirelessly campaigned for before tragically losing her battle with cervical cancer earlier this year.

In an interview for this paper in December 2018, the 26-year-old Clare woman told me that if she had been offered the HPV vaccine, doctors were “99.9pc positive” that she wouldn’t have developed cancer. And if there had been herd immunity, it is likely that she would have had “100pc protection against the cancer”.

Having selflessly devoted so much of her time to protect others by spreading the message about the importance of the HPV vaccine, the uptake soared to over 70pc amongst young girls and health officials hope that when the vaccine becomes available to teenage boys next month, the numbers availing of the free inoculation will be high.

Dr Cillian De Gascun, director of the UCD National Virus Reference Laboratory, says that while most people are aware of the need for girls to be vaccinated, the HPV virus can also affect boys.

“HPV refers to a family of viruses which infects the skin and mucosal membranes of humans,” explains the medical virologist. “There are more than 200 different types of HPV, around 40 of which can infect the genital tract and of these, 13 are known to be high-risk or oncogenic [capable of causing cancer].

“We have known since the 1930s that HPV can cause cancer – it was first demonstrated in the cottontail rabbit and later, in the 1970s and 1980s, Harald zur Hausen demonstrated the association between HPV and cervical cancer in humans. Since that time, it has become apparent that HPV is also responsible for a significant amount of other cancers, including anal, oropharyngeal, penile, vaginal, and vulval, so children should be protected to reduce their risk of getting cancer.”

According to Dr De Gascun, the vaccine protects against the acquisition of the HPV types which are included in the vaccine.

“It induces an antibody response which actually appears to be superior to that which is observed in the course of natural infection,” he says. “At the population level, assuming satisfactory uptake, the vaccine will provide us with the opportunity to virtually eliminate the risk of HPV-associated cancers in Ireland.

“Vaccinating boys will primarily provide them with direct protection against HPV-associated disease and will provide additional protection to girls, as it reduces the amount of circulating HPV. Ultimately, extending the programme to boys however makes the elimination of HPV-related cancer a genuine possibility and aspiration. The vaccine will be made available to boys in September, when they can receive the vaccine at the same age as girls – in the first year of secondary school.”

Some people are concerned about the safety of the vaccine and like every parent, Orfhlaith Daly wants the best for her children. So when her daughter reached the age where she qualified for a free HPV vaccine in school, she was naturally concerned but rather than ‘listening to rumours’ decided to do some research of her own.

Confident that the vaccine was not only safe but essential, the Co Cork mother-of-two allowed her eldest child, Emma (13), to be vaccinated last year and will do the same for her son Michael (11) when the vaccine becomes available for boys next month.

“Right from the beginning, I believed in vaccinations for my children and made sure they had all the necessary ones done,” says Orfhlaith. “I never hesitated at all until I came to the HPV vaccine for Emma, as I had heard lots of rumours about it being unsafe. But rather than just believing them, I decided to look into it myself and went online and got information and also leaflets from my doctor so I could make a decision based on facts.

“I decided it was totally safe and a necessary thing to do so Emma was vaccinated last year and had no problems whatsoever apart from a sore arm for a couple of days. And when it is offered to Michael this year, I will do exactly the same thing as I believe it is important that he is given the same level of protection as his sister.”

Orfhlaith says she hadn’t realised that boys were also at risk from certain cancers relating to the HPV virus and would advise parents of boys to arm themselves with the facts so they are aware of the benefits of vaccination.

“Initially I didn’t realise that the HPV actually meant something for boys and from talking to other parents, I discovered that I wasn’t the only one,” she says. “And anyone who had heard about boys being vaccinated against HPV thought it was just to further protect the girls, but it’s not as boys are also at risk – so, in my opinion, they should be given the same protection.

“I would encourage other parents to do as I did and find out everything they can about the vaccine from the correct source so they can make the right decision when the time comes. Rumours about the negative impact of vaccines have been around for a while – just look at the MMR scare and how that turned out. The research I did was a real eye-opener and I am very glad that I made the decision to do the best for my children.”

Dr De Gascun says the vaccine is very safe and anyone who has any concerns should seek advice from official sources.

“The vaccine is given at 12 years of age because it is more effective if given before sexual debut and the immune response is superior at that age, compared with older adolescents,” he says. “So I would say to parents that this is an extremely safe and effective vaccine which has the ability to prevent their children from getting certain types of cancer.

“It’s a really good news story and something for which we have been striving for ages – both as a profession and as a society. Over 100 million people have been vaccinated worldwide, and there have been no safety concerns – or associations with any chronic illness – identified.

“But if parents still have concerns, I would encourage them to seek advice from their GP, or their practice nurse, or other reliable sources, such as hpv.ie or hpsc.ie and would advise them against seeking opinions from strangers online.”

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