By Cara Cullivan
How would you feel if you were diagnosed with something that is preventable? Diagnosed with something that has the potential to develop into a life-threatening illness? With something that is being checked and monitored right now? Something that causes 99% of cervical cancers.
For the Womanhood section of Bean, I have previously spoken about my experience with the cervical check scheme, my diagnosis of abnormal precancerous cells, and my subsequent treatment. I did not go into extreme detail as to how I ended up there in the first place: I was never vaccinated against HPV.
9/10 adults have it. A 2017 report by the HSE estimated that 80% of sexually active women become infected with at least one strain of HPV by the age of 50. Globally, the highest rates of HPV infection occur in the 18‐28 year age group. It is normally passed on through sexual intercourse, including oral sex, and you only need to have been in contact with one infected person to contract the virus. Currently, only women can be tested or vaccinated. 70% of new genital HPV infections clear within one year, and most within two years. But it’s those other strains that we need to watch out for.
The three main strains of HPV that can prove harmful (11, 16, and 18) are targeted by the vaccine and are the strains that cause cells to mutate (and not in the cool X-men way). While the vaccine does not prevent you from contracting HPV, it is the only way that we are able to combat the virus. Girls in their first year of secondary school are offered the vaccine to be administered in two doses six months apart and, in Ireland, only girls are offered it in schools, boys can have to seek it out privately . There are two vaccines that are licensed in Ireland and they target only two oncogenic (cancer causing) HPV types (16 and 18); Cervarix and Gardasil. Gardasil is used in the vaccination programs in schools.
The vaccine is generally not offered to women over the age of 26, as those who have been exposed to the virus may not be protected by the vaccine. Women 25 or older should still attend for regular cervical screenings, whether they have been vaccinated or not. If you haven’t received an appointment, you can inquire about doing so here.
Cervical cancer is the second most common cause of death due to cancer in women aged 25 to 39 years. Yet, in 2016/2017 it was reported that the national uptake of at least HPV stage 2, considered to have complete a two dose course, was 51.0% – a large decline in uptake compared to previous academic years. There were rumours circulating about the undetermined effects of the vaccine and a social media campaign against it. Groups such as IFICA Europe and R.E.G.R.E.T have rallied against the vaccine, and held protests this July over what is claimed to be the insufficient medical treatment provided to those they believe have suffered an adverse reaction to the vaccine. A symposium on the topic held in April had guest speakers presented papers against it to the table such as one talk entitled, “HPV Vaccination and Marketing Disease”. Interestingly, only 1 of the 9 speakers in attendance was female. However, despite all of these rumblings against them, in November of 2015, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) reported on a review of HPV vaccines and found no evidence that they were linked to chronic fatigue like conditions.
There are of course side-effects, as there are with any vaccine. They amount to pain, swelling and bruising of the injection site and of the area and fainting, which is associated with most vaccines. The fact is that all national and international regulatory bodies have stated HPV vaccines are safe. The fact is that the benefit of getting the vaccine outweighs the risks of not receiving it.
One thing that is certain is that HPV, if left unvaccinated, undetected, untreated, can lead to cancer. Of the estimated number of cancers caused by HPV in Ireland, 420 of these could be prevented through vaccination. It causes 99% of cervical cancers. In men, it is inked cancers of the anus, mouth and throat, and penis. The vaccine gives people a chance. And the reality of not having that chance is lived daily by people who have been diagnosed with cancers that could have possibly been prevented.
As part of the campaign, the HSE highlighted the story of Laura Brennan (25) who was diagnosed with terminal cervical cancer. You can see her interview here on the Late Late; “I don’t want any mother, father, sister, brother, friends or family to lose someone from such a horrible illness which is cervical cancer which, thanks to a screening program and the HPV vaccine, is now preventable.”
It is imperative that the right messages need to be heard. The reality is that the vaccine saves lives. The smear tests save lives. Everyone deserves that chance. Protect our future.
For more articles on womanhood and female health, check out Cara’s article of being a juror at a rape trial and Colette’s cautionary discussion of Irish Woman Syndrome.