HPV AND CERVICAL CANCER STILL A THREAT TO BLACK WOMEN’S HEALTH

One, annual no-cost physician visit can dramatically cut your risk of cervical cancer. Getty: Jose Luis Palaez, Inc.

 

Improved access to more advanced, free preventive care may be at least part of the answer.

Kimberly N. Alleyne

One of the greatest advances in cancer prevention was the fairly recent discovery that one type of human papillomavirus (HPV) was most often the cause of cervical cancer. One of the most common of all sexually transmitted infections (STIs), approximately 80 percent of sexually-active women (and 90 percent of sexually-active men) will be infected with at least one type of HPV in their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In the United States an estimated 14 million new HPV infections are diagnosed annually. The virus, which is spread by skin-to-skin contact, generally does not have symptoms and clears on it’s own within two years. HPV rates are also higher among black women and we have a more difficult time clearing the virus from our bodies, though we do not yet know why.

And while the CDC reports that Latina women, have the highest rates of cervical cancer among racial and ethnic groups, black women have lower five-year survival rates and higher mortality rates from the disease, according to the Black Women’s Health Imperative (BWHI).

More than 12,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year. The BWHI reports that roughly 2,000 of them are black and approximately 40 percent will die from the disease—a rate twice that of white women.

If not for a boil under her arm, Tamika Felder might have been counted among those statistics.

“After I graduated from college, I got a freelance gig with no benefits. I went without health insurance for several years and didn’t have access to annual testing. I eventually landed a job with insurance benefits. Soon after I started the job, I went to the emergency room because of a boil, and the doctor happened to ask me when I had my last Pap smear,” says Felder, who was diagnosed in 2001 at age 25. “Since I had never had a Pap smear, the doctor ordered one and that is how I was diagnosed, otherwise I would not be here,” Felder says.

Following the diagnosis Felder had a full or radical hysterectomy, chemotherapy and radiation. She founded Cervivor.org in 2005 to drive awareness about HPV and cervical cancer.

Prevention and Early Detection Save Lives 

Peter Grossman, MD, an Augusta, Ga.-based OB-GYN, highlights the advances in cervical cancer research. “Well, there are four great things we know about cervical cancer: We have a precursor in cervical dysplasia (abnormal changes in the cells on the cervix surface); We know the cause, which is HPV; We have a great screening test with the Pap smear; and it takes a long time to develop, about 10 to 20 years from the initial exposure to HPV to the development of cervical cancer,” Grossman explains.

Prior to the 2010 passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), lack of access to Pap smear testing, due to the cost of care for women without insurance or with low levels of coverage, was thought to be the primary reason for higher rates of cervical cancer death among black women. The ACA has changed all that by mandating that all marketplace health plans include no-cost preventive services such as an annual well-woman exam, a Pap smear and HPV screening. To curtail the spread of HPV, the CDC also now recommends girls, starting at age 11, get the three-dose series of HPV vaccine; women can be vaccinated through age 26.

When detected early, cervical cancer has a 93 percent cure rate. That’s why it’s critical for all women—especially those past vaccination age—to get regular Pap smears and HPV screening. Keeping a close watch can cut your cervical cancer risk dramatically.

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