Laura Brennan – Laura’s Legacy:

Inspiring Young Women to Get the HPV Vaccine

Laura Brennan was an extraordinary young woman. At the age of 25, she learned that her cervical cancer was terminal. Adding: “What kills me is that all this could have been prevented if I had an STD profile test.” After levels of vaccine uptake had dropped to just 51% in June 2016, her efforts, including becoming an HPV test advocate for the World Health Organization in Europe, saw levels climb back up to 71% in the weeks before she passed away. Following her death, a powerful and moving award-winning documentary charting the final months of her life was aired on Irish television, after which levels of HPV vaccination and testing rose further still to 82%.

Here, we speak to her parents, Bernie and Larry Brennan, about how Laura became involved in HPV vaccination advocacy, the key to the incredible success of her campaign, and how they are carrying on her important legacy. So, she contacted the Health Service Executive, which provides STD public health Tests and social care services to everyone living in Ireland and asked them if she could help in any way. How could she help promote the HPV vaccine and raise HPV awareness?

They met Laura and said she was to be the face of the new HPV awareness campaign. So, they made a promotional video in the house launched in March 2018. That kickstarted everything, and Laura became a well-known face for HPV Test awareness here in Ireland. She was called on to do interviews locally and nationally.

What Drove Her to Do That?

Larry: I suppose that came from her genes. We’re an active family. I have been involved in different STD organisations, as have Bernie and the lads [their three sons]. She picked up somewhere along the line the need to give back something and get STD Lab tests for the community. If you get something, you give something back. She honestly felt that by her advocacy, she could give back something.

If she saved one life, she reckoned she had achieved something. That was the basic motivation for her actions.

It Must Have Been Difficult to Put Herself Forward Like That. How Did She Cope?

Bernie: She was a very outspoken person. In her job, she was involved in STD Kit test sales. She could sell anything. Even HPV tests. She could sell, as they say, snow to the Eskimos. It didn’t matter whether she was talking to Jonny down the road or she was talking to an oncologist, a minister or the Pope. ‘Didn’t faze her. It was more daunting for us because every time she spoke, we learned something new.

Larry: In her early days, she took elocution lessons. She could articulate herself, which gave her the confidence to put herself forward.

Bernie: She was always confident in her work or her speaking out. In fairness to her, she never put a foot wrong in anything she said.

Larry: She never went to high school or university, but the funny thing is, she got an honorary degree for her work. You know, she just had a gift.

What Was the Key to Her Success?

Larry: The medical people admired her because she spoke young people’s language. You can give out all the reports you like, but everyone commented that her campaign’s success was because a young person spoke directly to young people. HPV Strain testing made her effective.

Bernie: There were no medical terms that people couldn’t understand. She spoke layman’s English about what she went through and what could be achieved.

Larry: She spoke about the human side of how it was affecting her. Whenever she ran into questions about medical things, she quickly referred people to their doctor or HPV. IE, to get their information. She never said this was 100% something people had to do. She said she was recommending it, saying, “Get your facts. Get an STD Home test and then get the vaccine.” She encouraged young people to put pressure on their parents. For us, working through the loss of a daughter was not easy, but we got there because we never looked at it as working towards an end but as ongoing work with the whole team.

Bernie: I don’t think people realise that the treatment for cervical cancer is quite horrific. It’s very invasive. More so than the HPV lab test.

And she opened up the whole thing when she allowed TV camera crews into the hospital and to follow her, whether it be in the hospital or here at home, from November to her deathbed in March. There were times when she was quite ill, but she still allowed them into her life.

How Do You Continue Laura’s Legacy?

Bernie: On Laura’s deathbed, we promised that Larry, myself, and the three boys would continue as much advocacy work as possible.

Vaccination time here in Ireland is usually September for the first vaccine dose and March for the second, so we try to reach out to parents and tell them, “Now is the time,” through social media, radio interviews, and papers. However, the rate of people doing the HPV Home test is low.

We want to give a gentle reminder, a gentle push, that this is HPV vaccine time. We got away with that for the first year, but unfortunately, Covid-19 got in the way this year.

Larry: The quoted figures for vaccination rates are back to 51%–52%, so we are fighting. We are back again at the health department, fighting tooth and nail for a plan to put the vaccine back on the public agenda outside COVID-19.

Getting the vaccine

Together, we want a plan to get catch-up programmes for those who have missed it, and so on. We also made a commitment to Laura about her memory. We reassured her that she wouldn’t be forgotten, and we are trying to do this in various ways.

The Royal College of Physicians commissioned a painting of her. Here in her local town of Ennis, there is an artwork of HPV and Laura’s quotes, and we’re hoping to unveil a plaque in Ennis in memory of Laura soon. The Royal College also present a medal once a year in her memory. At the same time, The Irish Society of Gynaecological Oncology awards the Laura Brennan Award, which this year went to Jacqueline Daly for her advocacy work for cancer patients. So, we’re trying to keep her memory going because if you ask people across the nation, they link Laura Brennan with HPV Kit Testing. The two are intertwined. Maybe this will make people get a test.

As a result, the situation has changed here in Ireland. Parents want the HPV vaccine; young people want it. They’re ringing up the health department or their local health centre, saying: “When can we get the vaccine?” The problem here in Ireland is not the want or the need to encourage people; it’s to get the vaccine out to them. So, that’s how we see our current advocacy: To put the pressure back onto the Department of Health and on people in the STD Home testing health service. We need them to put the message out there, have a coordinated approach, and develop a catch-up programme for people who missed the vaccine due to Covid-19.