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'She saved thousands of lives': Documentary pays tribute to HPV vaccine campaigner Laura Brennan

The radio documentary features tributes to Laura from former Health Minister Simon Harris and Taoiseach Micheál Martin.

Laura Brennan.
Laura Brennan.
Image: HSE

A NEW RADIO documentary celebrating the life and work of HPV vaccine campaigner Laura Brennan has been released to mark three years since her death.

Laura was diagnosed with cervical cancer at the age of 24. After her diagnosis, she became involved in the campaign to raise awareness of the HPV vaccine to try to save lives.

‘Laura Brennan, The Voice’ tells the story of Laura’s life from growing up in Ennis in Co Clare to her work advocating for the HPV vaccine, until her death in 2019.

The documentary features testimonies from those who knew Laura best: her parents Larry and Bernie, her brothers Colin, Fergal and Kevin, and her friends, as well as the President of Royal College of Physicians Mary Horgan and former health minister Simon Harris.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin also recorded a tribute to Laura for the documentary, saying that her “courageous advocacy in highlighting the fight against cervical cancer, without question, saved the lives of many women”.

The documentary was written, produced and directed by Clare FM’s Programme Director Padraic Flaherty. Speaking to The Journal, Flaherty said it was an honour to put the tribute together.

“I’d have known of Larry, her father, who’s a very good author. He and Bernie and, when Laura was alive, all had a great relationship with the station. She’s always remained in my thoughts and I said, do you know what, her anniversary will be coming up on Sunday, so I set about doing this late last year,” he said.

“Thankfully, I gave my idea to Larry and Bernie, and they said yeah, anything that they could do to help out that they will be on hand at the end of the phone, which was a great help, because when you’re talking about a young girl that lost her life so tragically, for her family to be able to talk so openly about that, in itself, is a great gift to get.”

Flaherty began working on the documentary late last year. When it came to getting interviews for the documentary, he said that those who knew Laura were more than willing to pay tribute to her.

She touched everyone in a way, and family and friends were there straightaway with the hands up, but equally, when I got on to the Taoiseach’s office and to Simon Harris’s office to say: ‘Look, I’m doing this documentary, would the ministers be interested in taking part?’ And it’s a great endorsement of what Laura did when they turned around and said: ‘Absolutely, we want to be involved, how can we help?’

“To get that from the Taoiseach and from the former Minister for Health, it’s super. Mary Horgan, she was brilliant. She had such affection for Laura. And when I did the interview with Mary, she was still up to her neck in Covid issues and the same for Taoiseach as well. So they both took time out and they were both very, very happy to lend their voice to it,” he said.

After learning in September 2017 that her cancer was terminal, Laura began advocating publicly in favour of the HPV vaccine. In the documentary, Horgan outlines Laura’s importance to the HPV vaccine campaign.

“She was incredibly important. This was at a time when the HPV vaccine uptake dipped quite considerably because of a lot of ill informed people putting misinformation out on social media,” she said.

“There was a HPV Alliance and that included patient advocates so it resulted in a huge upswing from uptake of vaccine, which was only about 50% to it going right up to approximately 80% of the time, and a huge amount of that was to Laura, her personal story.”

Flaherty said it was important for him to highlight the work that Laura did for the vaccine campaign.

“With everything going on with Covid for the last few years, getting vaccinated, which was obviously a priority for the country, the HPV vaccination somewhat got lost in conversation. Especially in this county, we’re always aware of the levels that it went to, which was 90% in Clare and that was all down to Laura,” he said.

Despite knowing the family, Flaherty said he learned while making the documentary just how much Laura’s death affected them, and how they got through it.

For them to be able to deal with it, and to kind of get an understanding firsthand of what they had to go through for those few days before she passed away and when she passed away. You know, I knew it was heartbreaking, it’s a heartbreaking, heart wrenching story, but to hear it firsthand from Larry and Bernie and the lads. The strength of that family, certainly, would give any other family strength in the way they pulled together. They’re a great unit.

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The documentary aired on Clare FM at 11am on 22 March, and Flaherty said the station is “absolutely thrilled” with the response they have received.

“Laura is seen as a hero in this county, and she should always be honoured at that and the texts, the WhatsApps, the emails, the phone calls. They have all been, and it’s very rare that you say this in media and radio, 100% positive,” he said.

“Everybody has been talking about it and really accepting the work that Laura did, the wonderful work that she did. It’s great for a radio station to be able to put out a documentary that’s so warmly received. So we’re very proud of it.”

Flaherty said that he would like anyone who listens to the documentary to keep Laura and the work that she did in their thoughts.

“For any of us to do that in our full health should be applauded. But to do that, and to know that the road ahead is going to be very, very difficult, was amazing,” he said.

Laura was a fantastic young woman and she went way too early. At 26 years of age, for her to leave this world was tragic, but her work should always be remembered because she saved hundreds of thousands of lives. Her message was heard all over the world, and I think that should always be remembered.

‘Laura Brennan, The Voice’ is available to listen to here.

About the author:

Jane Moore

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