By Dr. Haywood Brown
January is Cervical Health Awareness month, marking an important time to have a candid conversation about the importance of early detection in the treatment and prevention of cervical cancer and recognize the disparate impact this disease has on communities of color.
Each year, over 13,000 new cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Hispanic women have the highest rates of new cases of cervical cancer, followed by American Indian and Alaska Natives, then non-Hispanic Black women. However, Black women are more likely to die from cervical cancer.
As an OB-GYN and former president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), I see these disparities manifested not as statistics, but as the everyday realities of family, friends, neighbors, students and patients. Every new disheartening diagnosis only intensifies my resolve to make the clarion call for cervical cancer prevention. And there are actionable steps we can take to do that with currently recommended and available cervical cancer screening through co-testing (Pap and HPV testing) and ultimately HPV vaccination.
Cervical cancer screenings can help prevent the disease by detecting changes in the cervix before cancer begins or when cancer is in its early stages. When found early, cervical cancer is highly treatable and associated with long survival rates. It is important for women to speak with their healthcare providers to make sure they are being regularly screened for cervical cancer and have follow up based on the results.
A new Ipsos poll commissioned by the Alliance for Women’s Health and Prevention revealed the differences in screening rates across communities. The data shows that white women are more likely to have received a cervical cancer screening (81%) than Black women (65%), Asian women (66%), and Hispanic women (68%). Because of delays in screening, Black women are more likely to be diagnosed with advanced cervical cancer than any other racial group.
There are various screening options, such as a Pap test or an HPV test, but co-testing (Pap test with HPV test), detects almost 95% of cervical cancers and over 99% of precancers with a single screen. Co-testing is a widely adopted, preferred and proven methed for cervical cancer screening in the U.S. Together the tests provide the greatest sensitivity in detecting disease and can play an important role in women’s preventive healthcare. As part of our advocacy efforts, AWHP is working to make sure women have equitable and affordable access to co-testing.
The HPV vaccine is another tool in our prevention arsenal as it is proven to be safe and effective in preventing cervical cancer. In fact, the HPV vaccine protects against 90% of cervical cancers, as well as other cancers and diseases. The CDC recommends HPV vaccination for everyone ages 9–26 and for some people ages 27–45, although it may provide less benefit in the later age range. Yet, the HPV immunization rate unfortunately remains low in the United States – in 2020, just 61% of girls and 56% of boys were up to date with the HPV vaccination series.
The clarion call for cervical cancer prevention must be made in communities across the country. From the rural counties of North Carolina, like the one I grew up in, to urban centers where we find high concentrations of communities of color, every woman deserves access to preventive health resources to reduce the burden of disease.
I’m proud to serve on the board of AWHP, an organization that is focused on ensuring equitable access to preventive health care for all women and girls. And we are actively working to raise awareness about the importance of prevention and advance policies that will ensure women and girls from all races, communities and backgrounds can access to effective prevention methods.
The fight against cervical cancer is one that we can win. We can change the statistics. As a dedicated women’s health care doctor for four decades, I want to make sure all women are empowered to talk with their providers, ensuring equitable access to the HPV vaccine and screenings, and advocating for policies that support affordable preventive care. Together, we can heed the clarion call.