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Wednesday 29 November 2023 Dublin: 2°C

'I am grateful I received the HPV vaccine and will be for the rest of my life'

The vaccine has saved thousands of lives worldwide, writes Imogen Sharkey Ochoa.

THREE WEEKS AGO, when I was asked by the Irish Cancer Society to speak about my experience of the Gardasil HPV vaccine at the launch of the HPV Vaccination Alliance, I jumped at the opportunity to encourage the next generation of girls to get it.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t understand why someone would need to testify to the fact that a vaccine, sanctioned and supported by the World Health Organization, was safe.

I was disappointed to hear the comments from a government minister in recent days, playing into a scaremongering attempt to link the vaccine to other conditions based on no scientific evidence. That is not to belittle or dismiss any Irish person’s experience of a serious condition – but only to separate its relationship to the vaccine, based on fact.

So, in the wake of welcoming the united front of government representatives expressing their unequivocal support for the vaccine, now also including Minister Finian McGrath, I hope in this coming school year concerned parents will decide to protect their girls (and boys once the vaccine becomes available to them publicly) against completely avoidable trauma and disease later in life.

I was one of the first girls to be vaccinated with Gardasil at the age of 13 in the United States. Like most other annual visits to the GP’s office, the visit in my 13th year saw a series of vaccinations, including one that I had to receive two more boosts for in the following year.

I had no idea what it was for, only that it was called Gardasil, and I had no objections to it except for my great dislike of needles.

I’m currently pursuing my doctorate in medicine at Trinity College – focusing on HPV-related diseases, most importantly cervical cancer. Having never thought directly about the needle prick I’d received as a teenager, the reality that over 70% of cervical cancers are caused by HPV set in.

Avoidable suffering 

I am surrounded every day by hardworking medical professionals who have to inform their female patients that they have had an abnormal smear (a national screening service for cervical cancers and precancers), and that they will have to return for further tests and possibly intrusive treatment. On a daily basis, I work with data that confirms, time and time again, that where there is HPV, there is cervical cancer.

Most importantly, however, I often bear witness to the stories of survivors of cervical cancer (and HPV-related head and neck cancers), and the family members of those who have not been as fortunate. Third degree burns and an inability to swallow and/or conceive are often the main reports survivors who underwent intense chemotherapy and radiation treatments give.

I am always humbled by their strength and optimism, but constantly reminded that, had the Gardasil vaccine existed during their adolescence, they would not need to have experienced such trauma.

For that reason, I can only give an enormous hug to my mother for trusting our GP and scientific evidence. A linguist and politician by training, she put her faith in the experts of the medical profession when my GP said that I would be saved a possibly fatal cancer, accompanied by grief and anxiety in the meantime, if I had the patience for one more injection. And didn’t patience serve my now hypochondriac self well.

It’s difficult to imagine, really, that a vaccine administered so early in life could have any impact on the development of cervical cancer decades later. It’s unlike the annual flu jab, where the answer to the question ‘Did you get the flu?’ is obvious within a few months.

No – the HPV vaccine does its protective magic against a virus that we might be exposed to throughout adolescence, young adulthood and into adulthood itself, completely silently and often unappreciated. Around the world, it has already saved thousands. Not thousands of hard-to-imagine, anonymous lives – real human lives.

I am grateful for that injection I received when I was 13, and will be for the rest of my life – unconcerned by HPV-related cervical cancer. And while I, and other researchers, continue to look for a “cure to cancer”, I would encourage all eligible girls to take advantage of a preventative one that already exists: the HPV vaccine.

Imogen Sharkey Ochoa is a PhD student at Trinity College Dublin, reading Histopathology and Morbid Anatomy. Her current PhD research focuses on HPV’s relationship to head and neck cancers, and is conducted under the umbrella of Cerviva, an independent research consortium focusing on HPV-related disease.

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Imogen Sharkey Ochoa
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