Friday 18 October 2019

Gene Kerrigan: 'This is too serious for conspiracy theories'

Laura Brennan's choices were impeccable. Facing death, she sought ways to protect others, writes Gene Kerrigan

Last Wednesday, Laura Brennan died. She was 26. That day, Ireland's most controversial "multi award-winning" journalist referred to Ms Brennan's "alleged death".

One in every 300 women in Ireland gets cervical cancer. The majority survive, after undergoing the rigours of treatment. About 90 women die each year.

The disease is acquired sexually, through the HPV virus. The HPV vaccine, given to young people before they become sexually active, can prevent women from getting the disease later in life.

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When Laura Brennan was diagnosed, aged 24, the vaccination rate was only 51pc. That meant there would be many unnecessarily premature deaths.

There were claims that the vaccine caused unacceptable side effects. Doctors argued these claims were groundless, but there was genuine fear among parents.

Such beliefs fitted into the world view of people commonly referred to as conspiracy theorists. Theories of conspiracies to fool us range across the "deep state", through "big pharma" to the Grenfell Tower fire and the Christchurch massacre.

Now, I've no problem believing in the existence of conspiracies. The Ansbacher racket, starring Charlie Haughey, was a conspiracy involving layers of the Irish establishment.

The Catholic hierarchy's cover-up of child abuse was a conspiracy.

From the Libor scandal to the Panama Papers, there's abundant evidence of real conspiracies. Only the very naive doubt that many of those who possess wealth and power covertly conspire to protect their positions.

No, my problem with the conspiracy theorists is not the bit about conspiracy. It's the bit about theory.

We can have theories about anything. To believe something, though, we need solid evidence.

There's evidence of the conspiracies outlined above - Ansbacher, Libor etc - hard-won evidence, uncovered by journalists, lawyers and by state agencies. The evidence has been tested and it is convincing.

But we live in an age in which some decide what they want to be true and then declare it to be true.

When shown evidence that what they're saying is untrue, they simply respond by chortling, "fake news". And they continue saying that which they want to believe is true.

The conspiracy theory merchants have long had a thing about vaccines - based on notions that have long been refuted. They seized on the HPV vaccine.

All injections, all vaccines, can have minor side effects - a sore arm, nausea - nothing drastic, certainly nothing to equal the devastation of cervical cancer.

Since hundreds of millions of doses of the HPV vaccine have been injected, there's no problem finding people who had the vaccine and subsequently had headaches, who became sick, or who died.

The same applies to any vaccine.

If you sample the same number of people who did not receive a vaccine, you would find a similar percentage who had headaches, who became sick, or who died.

In short: the fact that one thing is followed by another does not mean that the first thing causes the second thing.

With vaccines, this can be proven statistically. People who devote their lives to healing have assessed the HPV vaccine and passed it fit for use. They are not making this up to please "big pharma".

To conspiracy theorists, scientific evidence is just another part of the conspiracy. Laura Brennan could have hoarded for her personal enjoyment every precious hour of the life that remained to her - instead, she volunteered to fight the vaccine conspiracy theories. And she did, right to the end. She wanted to reduce the numbers of women who suffered as she did.

She was not exploited, she was no one's patsy.

"It is totally incredible that we can safely say there is a form of cancer which is preventable with a vaccine. I bet if there was a pill available to prevent breast cancer, people would be queuing up to get it in the morning."

(The quotes here from Laura Brennan are from interviews she gave and from her Twitter account.)

She was as clear-headed as she was public-spirited.

"The doctor was concerned about how I was taking the news but I just accepted it, as I felt I had some control over how I would live my life for the time I had left. People are killed in car crashes all the time and have no opportunity to say goodbye or do the things they want to do. So, at least this way, while it's not what I expected from my life, I can make the most of the time I have left."

In a short time, the campaign of which Laura Brennan was a major part raised the HPV vaccine uptake to 70pc. Large numbers of women who otherwise would have died 10 and 20 years from now will live full lives. Many more have been spared the rigours of cancer treatment.

Last Wednesday, Gemma O'Doherty, whose Twitter account repeatedly informs us she's a "multi award-winning journalist", spoke on her YouTube channel of Laura Brennan's "alleged death".

She claimed Laura Brennan was "exploited" by "big pharma" to promote "insidious propaganda". She warned that in days to come, there would be more of that propaganda.

In short, she sought to negate the work Laura Brennan did.

Laura Brennan previously stated: "I am not paid nor brainwashed."

And while she enjoyed the life of a bright, energetic young woman, she was frank about the reality of the medics' work to extend her short life.

"In 18 months, I've had 12 infusions of chemo, 3 internal/28 external radiation and much more. I've spent hours vomiting, hours in the bath trying to ease the aches, hours in bed. I've bowel and bladder damage. I'm in menopause. I've days with chronic pain."

Which is why she campaigned.

"I share my story because I want you to protect your child from having a HPV cancer. I want to protect you from the scaremongering."

Gemma O'Doherty, who warns us against Laura Brennan's "insidious propaganda", constantly refers to her own "multi-awards" to enhance her credibility.

Could I point out that one of the awards dates back 19 years?

That another is a travel award for describing a trip to Italy?

That in 2011, she accepted an award for medical writing, sponsored by drug company GSK, the epitome of "big pharma"?

Her website currently has a photo of her proudly displaying the GSK award.

There are various awards for Ms O'Doherty's documentary on missing child Mary Boyle. These awards are not like the Oscars. They are online "festivals".

Take the IndieFEST award. You put your film on YouTube. And pay $60 to submit it to IndieFEST.

O'Doherty got an award of "merit" in November 2016. It was one of over 100 awards of merit which IndieFEST gave that November. Similar numbers of awards of "recognition" and "excellence" were bestowed.

IndieFEST doled out similar numbers of such awards in February, May and August of 2016.

Laura Brennan was given a patient advocacy award by the Royal College of Physicians. Let's leave the last word with this astonishingly level-headed person.

"Since being diagnosed with cancer, I get messages daily, recommending different diets to cure me, spiritual healers who will cure me, clinics that will cure me. I've had terminal cancer over a year and thanks to palliative treatment, my life is great. Trust science."

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