Ignore claims of side-effects - the HPV jab could save your daughter's life
Two years ago, Aoife Harrington received devastating news. Then just 24 years old, the Mayo native was living in Abu Dhabi and enjoying her carefree youth and freedom. But that all changed when her doctor told her she had cervical cancer.
Hearing the emotional stories of cancer patients is nothing new to my colleagues and I in the Irish Cancer Society. But when Aoife bravely stepped forward to speak about her diagnosis and treatment on Today FM's 'Anton Savage Show' last Thursday, her account was particularly poignant. If she was just a few years younger, her cancer could have been prevented by something as simple as a needle.
In 2010, for the first time, Irish secondary school girls were offered the HPV (Human Papillomavirus) vaccine for free under the HSE's national vaccination programme. Since then, the vaccine has been offered to first year schoolgirls each September, and more than 220,000 Irish girls have received it.
The vaccine given to these girls protects against the major strains of HPV which cause cervical cancer. If Aoife was a little younger, she would have been eligible for the free vaccine. The last two years of her life could have been so different.
Now, having completed her initial treatment, and studying to become a primary school teacher, Aoife is currently cancer-free. She can finally plan her future again, but not all cervical cancer patients are so fortunate.
This year, conservative estimates indicate that more than 90 Irish women will die from cervical cancer - that's nearly two per week. In addition, another 280 will be diagnosed with invasive cancer. A further 6,500 women will need hospital treatment to remove precancerous growths in their cervix. All of these are caused by the HPV virus.
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.
That is what makes this vaccine so important. Two to three doses of this vaccine can change a woman's future. It can save a woman's life.
Worldwide, more than 200 million doses of the vaccine have been given to nearly 80 million 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.
Unfortunately, this has not abated the concerns of some parents who believe the vaccine is the cause of their daughters' ailments. Media outlets have reported on young girls experiencing illnesses that in some cases have left them bedridden and unable to go to school.
Such coverage has appeared to have had an effect on public opinion towards the vaccine's safety, as provisional figures from the HSE's National Immunisation Office show. According to them, as many as 5,000 fewer schoolgirls opted to receive the vaccine in the last academic year, compared to the 2015/2016 cycle.
That represents a total of more than 9,000 Irish girls who were offered this life-saving vaccine for free last year, but, through their parents or by their own choice, did not receive it.
These families are fully within their rights to make this choice, but when it comes to the health of daughters around the country, their decision should be one based on facts, not fear.
While there is no doubt of the severity of the illnesses experienced by many young girls - and we all sympathise with the very distressing situations these families find themselves in - their fears over the vaccine are unfounded.
These illnesses existed in males and females of various ages long before the public vaccination programme started in 2010 and, unfortunately, continue to develop in vaccinated and unvaccinated people at the same rate. National and international examination of these conditions by independent expert groups responsible for the safety of medicines disproves any link between the HPV vaccine, or any other vaccine, and these medical conditions.
The largest of these studies has looked at the rates of illness among over 80 million people who have received over 200 million doses of HPV vaccine and compared the rates of these illnesses with unvaccinated people. No difference in the rates of serious illnesses occurring in vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals has been found.
Almost everyone is exposed to HPV in their lifetime, but most of us will never know this - as the virus often shows no signs and clears itself harmlessly within two years. But try telling that to Aoife Harrington or other women who have received, or are currently receiving, treatment for cervical cancer.
The HPV vaccine is not a catch-all for every form of cervical cancer. Vaccinated women will still need to attend regular smear tests, which they can do for free if they are aged 25-60, under the national 'Cervical Check' screening programme.
Taking the smear test and vaccine together, it's quite possible that stories like Aoife's will become a thing of the past.
Dr Robert O'Connor is Head of Research with the Irish Cancer Society.
The Irish Cancer Society's public talk, 'Decoding Cancer - The HPV Vaccine: Warts and All', takes place today in the Oriel House Hotel, Ballincollig, Cork (6:30-7:30pm). Free registration to these events is open at www.cancer.ie.