Invest resources in cervical cancer prevention
January 10, 2007
January is Cervical Health Awareness Month, and we must raise awareness about the need for preventive care.
Cervical cancer kills one woman every two minutes worldwide. In the United States, it is the cause of nearly 4,000 deaths. It is a terrible, painful disease that strikes the old, the young and women of all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. It also causes infertility.
But vaccines and routine screening provide hope in the war on cervical cancer.
Thanks to screening, rates of cervical cancer deaths have been significantly lowered in recent years. But still many women do not get screened.
Older women, women of lower socioeconomic means and those of African-American and Hispanic heritage get screened proportionally less often than their white counterparts, and, consequently, are more likely to die from cervical cancer. These are the very women who would benefit most from preventative check-ups and vaccination.
African-American women are less likely to have cervical cancer diagnosed at an early stage, and at least 50 percent more likely to die from cervical cancer than white women. The incidence of cervical cancer is higher in Hispanic women than non-Hispanic women, especially along the Texas-Mexico border, and five times higher among Vietnamese-American women than white women.
Vaccines could drastically change this reality.
Cervical cancer is one of the few cancers for which the cause is known -- persistent infection with certain strains of a common virus called human papillomavirus (HPV). Vaccines for the virus are designed to prevent the most prevalent cancer-causing strains of HPV and have been shown to be safe and nearly 100 percent effective.
Beyond saving lives, screening and vaccination could significantly reduce health-care costs. Widespread access to vaccines could save the U.S. health-care system up to $6 billion each year in screening and treatment costs, according to a 2001 National Cancer Institute report.
To encourage women to get vaccinated, adequate public and private insurance coverage must be implemented for all, as is the case with screening.
America's vaccination program historically has been well-equipped to cover children in lower-income, uninsured or underinsured households through the federal Vaccines for Children program. But no comparable social service program exists for adult women.
Women who are underinsured and uninsured deserve to be vaccinated against cervical cancer as much as women who have insurance.
Making women aware of the vaccine is a threshold issue. Despite the first vaccine's approval last June, a recent National Cancer Institute survey showed that only 40 percent of women age 18 to 75 have ever heard of HPV.
Many women are not aware of the risks of cervical cancer, or are embarrassed to talk to their doctors about sexual health and troubling symptoms. Whether for personal or cultural reasons, this is a serious public health concern for all of us. Women should not hesitate to take charge of their health, and take advantage of preventive health tools like vaccines.
It's the responsibility of public health leaders, and of the nation as a whole, to ensure that all women -- regardless of income level or background -- have information about, and access to, vaccines.
With preventive screening and vaccination against cervical cancer as national priorities, we'll save billions of dollars. Most importantly, we'll save thousands of lives and spare millions of family members the agony of watching a loved one needlessly die.
Phyllis Greenberger is president and chief executive officer of Society for Women's Health Research, and is chair of Partnership to End Cervical Cancer in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.