‘Celebrate HPV vaccine,’ says terminally ill Laura Brennan

The HPV vaccine is something that should be celebrated, says Laura Brennan, who has terminal cervical cancer.

The 25-year-old Clare woman fronts the HSE’s latest HPV vaccination information campaign — the vaccine was not available in schools when she was a teenager.

Laura Brennan spoke at a conference in Dublin yesterday organised by the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland that is calling for boys to get the HPV vaccine.

“I think the HPV vaccine is something that should be celebrated. How amazing is it that we have something that can prevent cancer,” she said.

“This is obviously not the ideal situation to be in at 25 but if I can prevent this from happening to anyone else, why wouldn’t I use my voice to protect as many girls and, hopefully, boys in the future.”

Laura said she did not comment on the cervical smear controversy because her situation was different — it was the vaccine that would have prevented her from getting cancer.

Diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2016, she said her health was “good” and she worked three days a week selling cosmetics.

“Obviously, because my priorities have changed I don’t work for money; I work to get out and meet people and chat.”

After undergoing six rounds of palliative chemotherapy earlier this year she began treatment with Avastin, a drug that stops cancer from growing. Laura has discussed using the drug, Pembrolizumab, with her doctor.

Vicky Phelan, whose cancer was missed in a smear test three years before she was diagnosed, said recently her tumours were reduced significantly since she began taking the drug.

Laura said one dose of the drug, administered every three weeks, costs around €8,000. It would be the last treatment option available to her.

“So it is quite an expensive route to go down but you can’t put a price on a life.”

Laura said she still had a “fantastic” quality of life: “So, fingers crossed, the treatment I am on will keep my cancer as small as possible for as long as possible.”

 

‘Screening aims to reduce, not get rid of, cancer risk’

The co-inventor of the HPV vaccine said screening programmes are designed to reduce a risk, not get rid of it.

Prof Ian Frazer, who administered the first dose of the vaccine in Australia in 2006, predicts the HPV virus will be effectively eradicated in the country by 2028.

Although the vaccine was only for girls when first introduced, boys aged between 12 and 13 are also being vaccinated as part of Australia’s national HPV programme.

The immunologist received an honorary fellowship from the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland yesterday for his pioneering work to eliminate the HPV virus.

He said it was great that the cervical screening programme in Ireland had reduced the incidence of cervical cancer but added: “Screening programmes are designed to reduce a risk, not get rid of it.”

Health Minister Simon Harris says he is committed to ensuring a new HPV test by the end of the year, in the wake of the cervical screening controversy.

Prof Frazer said the new test would allow for a “belt and braces” approach because the screening would look for the virus as well as abnormal cells.

He said when women are screened for cervical cancer, it is explained to them it is a screening test and that it is not a perfect test.

Prof Frazer said that if a woman develops cervical cancer she is asked if she took part in the screening programme and they would have a look at the smears.

“It is such a rare event in Australia to get a cancer now,” he said. 

“By 2028 there won’t be any women in Australia getting cervical cancer if the current modelling continues.

“Between the screening programme and the vaccine programme, the only woman getting cervical cancer in Australia will be the woman who comes into Australia unvaccinated.”

Prof Frazer believes there should be a worldwide campaign to get rid of cervical cancer in exactly the same way as the campaign to get rid of polio.

“This is a virus that only humans get; we know how it is spread; we know how to stop it spreading; we know that the cancers are all caused by the virus.”

Worldwide immunisation would eventually eliminate the disease.

“In 50 years’ time, we wouldn’t need to immunise any more, just like smallpox.”

Prof Frazer said women who test positive for HPV in Australia but don’t have any abnormalities are tested in a year’s time.

“The aim is to make sure that the HPV infection goes away because that is what most of them will do.”

If a woman is still positive for the virus, she would continue to be tested. If the test is negative, she goes back into the five-year cycle of testing.


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