As head of research with the Irish Cancer Society, I am used to talking with cancer researchers about the studies we fund and the advances they make in terms of cancer prevention, early detection, treatment, and survivorship.
But this past few weeks have been different, as I’ve had the opportunity to discuss with the general public the facts behind one of the most significant advances in modern cancer research: The development of a vaccine that can substantially reduce the instances of cervical cancer among women.
Since 2010, more than 220,000 Irish secondary school girls have been offered the HPV vaccine for free under the HSE’s national vaccination programme. The injection protects against the major strains of HPV (human papillomavirus), which cause cervical cancer, and is offered to first-year school girls each September.
That means that more than 30,000 Irish girls are now being offered the opportunity to have their chances of contracting cervical cancer significantly reduced.
Despite the actions of our world class cervical cancer screening programme, roughly 280 women are diagnosed with invasive cervical cancer each year in Ireland.
It is estimated that more than 90 Irish women will die from cervical cancer this year, while a further 6,500 will need hospital treatment to remove precancerous growths in their cervix.
The vaccine protects from strains of HPV that cause more than 70% of all cervical cancers.
If these women had received the vaccine, the vast majority would be spared such medical treatment. Most importantly, lives would have been saved.
Our two public talks this week, in Galway and Cork, presented these facts and more to large audiences, many of whom were parents anxious to learn more about the vaccine being offered to their daughters.
Expert analysis was given by local consultant gynaecologists and Margaret Stanley of Cambridge University, who is a leading global expert in this field, with her research focussing on the development of vaccines and immunotherapies against HPV.
Also among them were powerful testimonies from young women who have gone through a multitude of treatments for cervical cancer.
Irish doctors use the most modern techniques for managing this disease but treatment can be very difficult, often involving combinations of highly invasive surgery on the reproductive areas of the body, along with radiation and/or chemotherapy.
Even with all the modern advances, the unfortunate truth is that four in 10 of those women treated will succumb to their cancer within five years.
Many of those women will be young. Some will be young mothers, while others will perhaps not have children but treatment will often rob them of that option in their life.
Again, the HPV vaccine would have relieved many of these women the emotional and physical pain this disease has caused.
However. despite this, more and more parents are opting not to give their daughter the vaccine.
Provisional figures from the HSE show that 5,000 fewer first-year girls received the vaccine in the last academic year compared to the 2014/2015 cycle.
That means that 9,000 girls were offered the injection last year but either they or their parents chose not to receive it.
Which begs the question: Why? Recently through the media and from listening to personal stories, the Irish Cancer Society has heard from families who have seen their young girls battle severe ailments that, in many cases, have left them bedridden.
The true stories they tell are harrowing, and as they search for reasons why their daughters have fallen ill, they conclude that the HPV vaccine was the cause.
This conclusion understandably creates a fear around the injection.
While I sympathise with the real ailments these girls endure, as a representative of the Irish Cancer Society I have an obligation to present the facts, which show that the vaccine is safe.
Worldwide, more than 200m doses of the vaccine have been given to around 80m people. Recent studies from leading international medical agencies, including the World Health Organisation and the European Medicines Agency, have concluded that Gardasil, the vaccine offered to Irish girls, is safe and has no link to serious illnesses.
All medicines can cause effects in some people. The HPV vaccine is a “needle” so, like MMR and every other common vaccine we get, many will feel pain from the injection.
An ache in the muscle or an unwell feeling for a few minutes to a few hours is not uncommon.
There are rare side effects but the number and rate of these is incredibly low and the risks of even the more common of these effects is much less than many things we do in our daily life like being in a car or playing a sport.
In reality, the possible outcomes women face from a cervical cancer diagnosis far outweigh the risks perceived from the HPV vaccine.
As cervical cancer survivors spoke at our talks in August, they all had a common message to tell: If the HPV vaccine was available to them when they were in school, they wouldn’t have hesitated in taking it.