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.

From then until her death at just 26 years of age, Laura, from Ennis, County Clare, Ireland, worked tirelessly as a campaigner for HPV vaccination.

Working closely with Ireland’s department of health, she urged young women to get vaccinated, saying in a promotional video: “I am the reality of an unvaccinated girl.”

Adding: “What kills me though is that all this could have been prevented.”

After levels of vaccine uptake had dropped to just 51% in June 2016, her efforts, including becoming an HPV vaccine advocate for the World Heath 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 uptake 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.

How Did Laura Become Involved in Campaigning for the HPV Vaccine?

Bernie: Laura was diagnosed with cervical cancer in December 2016, she started her treatment in January 2017, and finished in March 2017. And she got the all-clear in June 2017, but she knew then that something wasn’t right.

She asked her oncologist to send her for a PET scan in September 2017, and unfortunately, as a result of that, she was diagnosed with terminal cervical cancer. Once she had that, she said to herself: “What can I do to prevent someone else from getting cervical cancer?”

So, she contacted the Health Service Executive, which provides public health and social care services to everyone living in Ireland, and she asked them if she could help in anyway. How could she help promote the HPV vaccine and raise HPV awareness?

They came down and met Laura, and said she was to be the face of the new HPV awareness campaign. So, they did a promotional video in the house and that was launched in March 2018.

That really kickstarted everything, and Laura became a well-known face for HPV awareness here in Ireland, and 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 a family that’s active. I have been involved in different organisations throughout the years, so has Bernie and the lads [their three sons].

I suppose she picked up somewhere along the line the need to give back something. If you get something, you give something back. She honestly felt, by her advocacy, she could give back something.

If she saved one life, she reckoned she had achieved something. And that was the basic thing that drove her on: to save a life.

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 sales. She could sell anything. 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. It 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 had elocution lessons. She was able to articulate herself and it gave her the confidence to put herself forward.

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

Larry: She never went to high school, she never went to 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: She was admired by the medical people because she spoke young people’s language. You can give out all the reports you like, but everyone commented that the reason for the success of her campaign was it was a young person speaking directly to young people. It made her effective.

Bernie: There were no medical terms that people couldn’t understand. She spoke layman’s English as to 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 with regards to the medical things, she was very quick to refer people to their doctor or to to get their information.

She never said this was 100% something people had to do. She basically said she was recommending it, and saying: “Get your facts. Get the vaccine.”

She encouraged young people to put pressure on 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.

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 the November to her deathbed in the March.

There were times when she was quite ill and she still allowed them into her life.

How Do You Continue Laura’s Legacy?

Bernie: We promised Laura on her deathbed that we—Larry, myself and the three boys—would carry on as much as possible her advocacy work.

Vaccination time here in Ireland is usually September for the first vaccine dose and March for the second, so we try to come out and tell parents: “Now is the time”, through social media, through radio interviews, and via the papers.

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 then this year, unfortunately Covid-19 got in the way.

Larry: The figures that are currently being quoted for vaccination rates are back down 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 up again on the public agenda, outside of Covid-19.

We want a plan in place where we can get catch-up programmes for those who have missed it, and so on.

We also gave 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.

A painting of her was commissioned by the Royal College of Physicians. 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, while 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. The two are intertwined.

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 and they’re saying: “When can we get the vaccine?”

The problem here in Ireland at the moment 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 health service.

We need them to put the message out there, to have a coordinated approach and to develop a catch-up programme for people that missed the vaccine due to Covid-19.