Laura Brennan Tribute : Prof Donal Brenna 2018



Wednesday, 12 December 2018 at 3.30 pm



TEXT OF THE INTRODUCTORY ADDRESS DELIVERED BY PROFESSOR DONAL BRENNANon 12 December 2018, on the occasion of the conferring of the Degree of Doctor of Literature, honoris causaon LAURA BRENNAN




A Uachtarán, a mhuintir na hOllscoile agus a dhaoine uaisle (President, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen), today we are here both to celebrate and honour the remarkable achievements of Laura Brennan, whose work as a patient advocate and communicator has helped to restore public confidence in HPV vaccination in Ireland.


Ireland is the only country in the developed world that has managed to overcome a crisis in public confidence regarding HPV vaccination. This has been a unique experience, driven by an alliance of patients, healthcare professionals, scientists and members of the public who volunteered to come together and support HPV vaccination as a strategy to prevent cervical cancer. One of the most active public advocates for HPV vaccination at a national and international level has been Laura Brennan, a 26 year old lady from Clare, who has incurable cervical cancer. 


Laura has travelled Ireland and the world to promote HPV vaccination. Her voice is so powerful. She commands attention. That this brave young woman, with a disease the HPV vaccine can protect against is speaking up, resonates with young people in particular, and with their parents. She has helped to rebuild their trust and confidence in HPV vaccination and we can see that is increasing its uptake.  Her honesty, courage and strength in delivering her own difficult story demonstrates the impact the patient’s voice can have on the public. The fact that the vaccine will be extended to boys next September means that policy makers have also been listening. 


We are truly delighted to welcome Laura her parents, family and friends to University College Dublin today.   At the age of 24, Laura received devastating news about her health.  She was diagnosed with locally advanced cervical cancer.   Just two years ago her world suddenly included aggressive chemotherapy and radiotherapy.  Despite this, her cancer progressed, and she is currently receiving palliative chemotherapy. This is a challenging journey for anyone, but particularly for a gorgeous young woman and her family and friends. We are all so grateful and humbled that in the midst of all of this that Laura thought about others and what she could do to prevent another young woman and their family from the same experience. 


In September 2017, Laura independently contacted the HSE National Immunisation Office asking to become a public advocate for HPV vaccination. At the time there was a crisis of confidence in the HPV vaccination program. Unfounded safety concerns had led to a significant reduction in vaccination rates. Many young girls and their parents were scared by some of the misinformation that was being aggressively circulated, particularly on social media, and they decided against receiving the life-saving vaccine.  Since then, Laura has spoken to those people and they have listened. She has become the cornerstone of a public advocacy initiative involving social and mainstream media outlets, which has directly led to an increase in HPV vaccination rates over the last year and soon this will extend to boys.   Her advocacy has the potential to protect literally thousands of people against HPV-related cancers in the coming decades and I have no doubt can save hundreds of lives.


Medicine is in the midst of a significant communication challenge as we adapt to the impact of social media.  Although we strive to produce and implement evidence-based guidelines, many years of basic science and clinical trials can be destroyed by a small number of anecdotes or videos, which can be posted online without any verification of their accuracy. The constant thirst for bad news means that anecdote-based medicine produces much better headlines than evidence-based medicine. Furthermore, we ourselves as medics and scientists can occasionally be accused of sensationalism, promoting novel interventions, before the true impact of our discoveries has been rigorously assessed in appropriate clinical scenarios.  Unfortunately medical advances arenot a string of groundbreaking discoveries communicated through press releases, tweets, facebook posts and hurried mass emails. Advances in clinical medicine and therapeutics can be slow, incremental, nuanced, and often contradictory. A significant challenge now exists in how we communicate advances and limitations of science and medicine in the era of a 24-hour news cycle, omnipresent social media and ever increasing levels of public and political expectation. 


The best way to address this challenge is to reintroduce the human aspects of disease – the lived experience. In 21stcentury communications, the patient’s description of his or her illness has a far greater impact on public opinion then the doctor’s description of the disease.  The voice of a brave, generous, articulate young woman is powerful and strong. Understanding and describing the important differences between illness and disease is a key component of how we train future doctors and improve public communication initiatives. Therefore, it is imperative that we develop a true partnership with our patients who often times are now not only advocating for themselves, but also for their doctors and nurses.


Undoubtedly, the work that Laura and other patients have done to restore confidence in the efficacy and safety of the HPV vaccine is an excellent example of this partnership. The model of combining active patient advocates with social media campaigns to help promote public health initiatives is a relatively new one. Laura Brennan has been a pioneer in this area and her contribution can never be underestimated.  It requires immense courage to put one’s self forward in a public capacity and speak openly and honestly about your own illness, particularly given the stigma that can often still be associated with cervical cancer. 


Laura has not only come forward in Ireland, she has also become an ambassador for the WHO and, despite her illness has travelled extensively to advocate for HPV vaccination. She has donated her own precious time to work tirelessly to protect future generations as we attempt to eradicate cervical cancer using a combination of HPV vaccination and screening.  Last week UCD honoured Dr Douglas Lowy for his work, along with Dr Ian Fraser and others, in developing the HPV vaccine. These pioneers of vaccine development would also agree that the work of Laura and other patient advocates is invaluable in promoting vaccination around the world. 


It is entirely fitting that we honour Laura today in the Dr Kathleen Lynn lecture theatre. Dr Lynn was the founder of St Ultan's Hospital for Children as well as a War of Independence veteran and introduced BCG vaccination to Ireland. Another proud woman form the West of Ireland, who was a pioneer of vaccination. Many academics have studied Dr Lynn’s contribution to Irish public health in the past. In the future many will study the impact of Laura Brennan’s work on the Irish HPV vaccination program and document her profound impact on Irish public health. 


It has been a pleasure to get to know Laura over the last number of months, her positivity, courage, sense of humour and quest for knowledge is infectious. Her eloquence and honesty when speaking at scientific meetings or public events can be astonishing, making it much more difficult for the so-called professionals, like me, who have to follow in her wake. In many ways she has raised the bar for all of us who work in the field and we are absolutely privileged to consider her a colleague and a true partner in the ongoing efforts to eradicate HPV-related cancers for future generations.




Praehonorabilis Praeses, totaque Universitas, 


Praesento vobis hanc meam filiam, quam scio tam moribus quam doctrina habilem et idoneam esse qui admittatur, honoris causa, ad Gradum Doctoratus in Litteris; idque tibi fide mea testor ac spondeo, totique Academiae.

Last modified: Tuesday, 26 March 2019, 10:06 PM