EARLY on, when the nun connection was mentioned, it was mentioned with a shrug, writes Terry Prone.
It was proffered almost as a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not fact: Did you know nuns never get cervical cancer? They were regarded the way milkmaids were regarded a century earlier; seen as a group who were fortunate almost beyond logic. The milkmaids didn’t get smallpox, the great killer and disfigurer of the time. Then Edward Jenner divined that the reason the milkmaids didn’t get smallpox was that they got a much milder version known as cowpox, which rendered them immune to the more serious disease, and this insight leading to the development of the vaccine which eventually exterminated the smallpox horror.
A later generation knew about the nuns’ natural immunity — or apparent natural immunity — to cervical cancer, but it took a long, long time before the obvious conclusion was reached and everybody acknowledged cervical cancer to be a sexually transmitted disease. Which in turn meant that two methods of prevention presented themselves: Absolute lifelong abstention from sex, or the taking of a vaccine before the taker became sexually active. Specifically, taking the HPV vaccine.
For a while, the take-up of the vaccine was at a pleasingly high level. Pleasing, that is, to any parents who wanted to protect their daughters from a killer disease. And then came a confluence of factors that reduced numbers vaccinated to dangerously low levels. Those factors included a new disrespect for expertise, which saw anybody with access to Facebook regarding themselves and being regarded by others as being possessed of shining insight and ideation that greatly outweighed the value of a decade’s worth of medical education. Every parent who believed their daughter’s troubling fatigue was due to the HPV vaccine could and did persuade dozens of other parents that they’d be well advised to avoid the vaccine when their daughter was of an age to receive it.
Once persuaded, the next step — persuasion of others and activism against the vaccine — was easy. The easiest heroism is that wielded against the great grey faceless entities and evidence-based dogmas of the day. The most difficult communication is the
attempt to dissuade the persuaded whose personal pride and sense of self is tied up in their beliefs, no matter how insupportable those beliefs are. All the amateur notions of “just give them the facts in an accessible way” and “the truth will set you free” do not apply. If the source of the data is The Uncaring Establishment, then the data can be dismissed. And that is exactly what has happened to the HPV vaccine.
I have listened to medics tearing their hair out and — in private — tearing strips off parents they believe to be deliberately exposing their daughters to danger by rejecting the vaccine. “We have to say it’s perfectly safe,” they would state, dismayed when it was pointed out that the minute you describe something as safe, it raises questions about it. Who sells an electric kettle as “safe”?
The desperation of the medics was caused by the fact that in 2016 and 2017, half the young women who should have been vaccinated were not vaccinated. Thanks to Trojan work, that figure was brought up, in the past year, to 62%, with the minister warning against the temptation for back-patting on what is quite substantial progress.
Whoever decided to put Laura Brennan from Clare front and centre of the next phase of the
campaign is a genius.
According to a story in this paper by Evelyn Ring, Laura put herself forward, having been diagnosed with terminal cervical cancer. Now 25, she had been part of a group of girls who went through secondary school before the vaccine became generally available. Nobody’s fault, but she is now eking out an existence thanks to palliative care. She’s not looking for sympathy either. Just wants parents to realise that there’s a vaccine that can prevent — for their child — what has happened to Laura.
It’s simple, on the face of it. But it may be far from simple in its effectiveness. It may be the
intervention that, in its simplicity, routes the anti-vaxxers. Laura Brennan is difficult to attack, standing there, the quintessential innocent bystander, clad in what Martin Luther King once described as “unarmed truth”.
If you’re trying to be heard, in a noisy world, prevention of attack is a major step forward. Ms Brennan has, more significantly, managed to change the dynamic of the debate. Instead of mothers feeling heroic as a result of seeking to protect their daughters from possible non-lethal side-effects of a vaccine, the positioning, now, is that is mothers can feel heroic by protecting their daughters from death. Only one simple action required: Make sure they get the HPV vaccine.
In the face of a 25-year-old dying of the disease, worries about complications seem — and are — trivial. But that’s the beauty of the Laura Brennan intervention. She is not standing there as a reproach to parents who failed to have their daughters vaccinated. She’s not
attacking anybody for their past, present or future actions. She is just tapping into the natural instincts of parents. Because, let’s be clear, the natural instincts of parents are what created anti-vaxxers. Anybody who pays a blind bit of attention to the science knows they’re wrong, but the starting point is understandable, even admirable.
Laura Brennan is offering a generation of parents the opportunity to avoid the latter and be sure of the former: To be their child’s proud and proven champion.
Laura’s own future is so relentlessly present in the back of every viewer’s mind as they watch her talk, it is a method stilling the tumult, of forcing a quiet, singular reflection rare in a time of mutual attack on social media. It takes the issue from theory to reality.
We saw an example of heroism in France in the last few days, when a police officer offered up his life to save besieged civilians. We’re seeing a local example of heroism in Laura Brennan. She has abandoned her privacy, at a point in her illness when she must long simply to retreat into one-day-at-a-time reclusion. She has ensured a focus on herself and on her family that will not go away. If the trend towards more parents making sure their daughters get the HPV vaccine continues or accelerates, that will owe a lot to Laura
Brennan. She will save lives.
Laura Brennan is a real influencer. And a hero.
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