Taking HPV vaccine ‘most important thing’ young women can do – doctors

More reassurance needed on taking contraceptive pill, women’s health event hears

Taking the HPV vaccination is the “single most important thing” young women can do to protect their gynaecological health, a panel of medical practitioners have heard.

It is "crucial" that young women avail of this vaccination to avoid developing cervical cancer later in life, Dr Venetia Broderick, consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist at the National Maternity Hospital told the Department of Health's Tell Me More women's health event on Monday.

“To think we have a vaccine that is hopefully going to eradicate, or almost eradicate, cervical cancer, I think that’s the single most important thing that young girls can do to protect their gynaecological health,” she said.

Her advice was echoed by Cork-based GP Dr Sarah Fitzgibbon who noted that the HPV vaccine not only stops women from developing cervical cancer but also prevents other types of cancer. "Getting an injection that can stop you getting cancer, this is not something that we would have considered 20, 30, 40 years ago. And from what we can see from the recent results, it is unbelievably effective in preventing cancer."


Dr Fitzgibbon led Monday’s discussion on periods and general gynaecological health – the first of the Tell Me More series of public, online events organised by the Department of Health’s Women’s Health Taskforce.

Contraceptive pill

Panelists all agreed more “mythbusting” is needed to reassure women that taking the contraceptive pill will not affect their chances of having a baby. Women regularly ask whether taking the pill will affect their fertility, a misconception that continues to cause confusion and concern among many women, said Dr Broderick.

“No, it’s not going to affect your chances of having a baby when you’re older,” she said, adding that going on the pill can often improve a woman’s quality of life if she experiences heavy and painful periods.

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan, consultant in obstetrics and gynaecology at Cork University Hospital, said taking the pill continuously, without a break for a withdrawal bleed, does not cause health problems.

“Traditionally, the pill was designed that you would stop after 21 days [for a withdrawal bleed] because women at that time, if they didn’t get a period were going out of their minds with worrying that they were pregnant,” she said. However, taking that break “doesn’t make contraceptive cover better”, she added.

“You can actually just keep taking the pill without a break. In the past, you were told you had to take a break from the pill if you’re on it for a certain length of time. That’s actually not the case. You don’t need to break with the pill. Nothing is building up.”

Dr O’Sullivan also underlined that the pill’s hormones leave a woman’s system within 24 hours of stopping the pill. “So again the concern about returning to fertility, is there an issue with that? No. Once you stopped taking the pill your fertility will go back to normal as if you’ve never been having it.”

Reduce risk

Taking the pill or using intrauterine devices (the coil) in the medium to long term can also reduce the risk of endometrial cancer, she added.

Dr Fitzgibbon said many women still struggle “to get their heads around” the fact that they can take the pill continuously and believe they should take breaks to keep their body, and reproductive system, healthy.

“I would say to them is that in my previous experience, when people have come into me and said they’ve taken a break, they ended up having nine months of pregnancy. That’s not really much of a break for their body.”

Cork-based GP Dr Monica Peres Oikeh said young women should visit their GP with any gynaecological questions and that they do not need to get an appointment with a consultant gynaecologist for a regular check, as is the case in some other countries. GPs in Ireland have plenty of knowledge in this area while many have "significant training" in women's health issues.

“Your GP should be your first point of call and if they think more needs to be done, then they will refer you on to your gynaecologist. But in general, you should go to your GP for your regular contraceptive sexual health needs.”

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak is an Irish Times reporter and cohost of the In the News podcast