Cervical cancer is a killer and, worryingly, Ireland has one of the highest rates of the disease in Europe. According to figures from HSE National Immunisation Office, every year more than 6,500 women are treated in hospital for pre-cancer of the cervix, and around 300 new cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed. Ninety women die from the disease annually.

"Cervial cancer kills 90 women a year; consequently, the HPV vaccine is free to secondary school-aged girls."

This form of cancer is caused by HPV, or human papillomavirus; although the HPV vaccine — which has been given to 100 million women globally — offers protection against seven out of 10 cervical cancers and is available in Ireland free of charge for all girls in the first year of second level school.

 

Recommended by health organisations

 

Yet, despite the HPV vaccine being recommended by the World Health Organization, the International Federation of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the National Immunisation Advisory Committee, there was a 15 per cent reduction in uptake of HPV vaccines for girls in 2015 and 2016. Furthermore, in 2016, only 50 per cent of adolescent girls started the widely recommended HPV vaccine series, which is well below the 80 per cent target.

 

Paula and Aoibhe's story

 

Paula O'Brien's daughter, Aoibhe, was given the HPV vaccine through the school programme when she was aged 12 (which is when it works best). All Paula had to do was sign a consent form.

Yet Paula admits that she didn't know much about the vaccine at first, so made it her mission to find out more.

All Paula had to do was sign a consent form...

“I had heard about it on radio and TV and read about it in the paper, but it was mainly all new to me,” she says. “I think we owe it to our kids to take responsibility and find out more, so I did my own research into the vaccine, reading a lot of peer-to-peer papers online and finding out about its benefits. I discovered that this is a safe vaccine which helps prevent cancer. That's the holy grail, really. As parents we want the best for our children. We want to protect them.”

 

The HPV vaccine is free to all girls in the first year of second level school - which is when it works best.


 

Consulting health professionals

 

Paula — who is based in Cork — also consulted her GP about the vaccine. “I asked her opinion and she told me that she will definitely give consent for her daughters to have it when they come of age,” she says. “Ultimately, I think we need to trust the professionals. I work as a nurse, but I didn't make the decision for Aoibhe on that basis. I made it as a mother.”

"I didn't make the decision as a nurse, I made it as a mother."

Paula also made sure she involved Aoibhe every step of the way, sharing what she had discovered during her research. The vaccination was administered by injection and, apart from some mild discomfort, was trouble-free. Aoibhe has suffered no side-effects. “It doesn't mean 'that's that',” says Paula. “It will still be important for her to have smear tests. But knowing that Aoibhe has had the HPV vaccination gives me real peace of mind.”