This article is cross-posted from and in partnership with the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, and is published as part of a series on cervical cancer.
See all our coverage of Cervical Cancer Awareness Month 2012 here.
No woman should die from cervical cancer. Medical science has finally given us the tools to prevent the deaths of women living with it. Yet in the United States, this highly preventable and treatable disease kills more than 4,000 women every year. What’s more, the disease is not spread equally across society – Hispanic women are 1.5 times more likely than white women to be diagnosed with, and eventually die from, cervical cancer.
Experts have pointed to a number of factors contributing to this alarming disparity. In general, Latinas have faced greater barriers to getting the care that is necessary to prevent, detect, and treat cervical cancer in its early stages. Some of these obstacles are the ones typical to Latinos in general, such as uninsurance, lack of a regular source of care, and language and geographic barriers. Yet there is another, overarching impediment that, while not exclusive to the Latino community, may be hitting us particularly hard. An argument can be made that there is a critical cultural and social barrier that is interfering with our ability to make cervical cancer a thing of the past: the baggage that the disease carries because it is primarily caused by a sexually transmitted virus, the Human Papilloma Virus, better known as HPV (which also causes other forms of cancer in women and men).
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Thanks to the new health care law, we are in a better place than ever before to tackle the usual barriers to care. As the law is implemented, many more Latinas will have access to coverage, primary care providers will be better supported, and community health centers will grow, all which will help Latinas get the care they need. And on top of all this, preventive benefits – including pap smears and HPV tests – will be available to women free of charge, and HPV vaccinations for boys, girls, women, and men in the recommended age ranges will also be free.
However, the best technology in the world is useless if it isn’t implemented – and there is a real danger that this is exactly what may happen in our community. Just a few years ago, science produced a true game changer in the fight against cancer: the HPV vaccine. Imagine: a cancer vaccine! The Holy Grail of cancer researchers for decades! You’d think that the public would be clamoring to make sure everyone got it. Instead, this public health breakthrough is being undermined by a dangerous and misguided debate about the social and moral implications of vaccinating pre-teen girls against exposure to a sexually transmitted virus.
It is vitally important that we change the framing of this issue, especially in the Latino community, where we clearly have more to lose. This is a matter of health and safety, not of sex and stigma. Just as is true for other vaccines, the HPV vaccine is meant to protect individuals against unexpected health risks in the future. We must clarify for our community that the scientific basis for vaccinating our girls and boys at age 11 and 12 is not because we expect them to have sex when they reach 13, but because the vaccine needs time to become effective, and younger immune systems produce stronger antibodies that will protect them their whole lives. Moreover, although it is difficult for us to accept, especially those of us who are parents, we need to understand that we live in a society where young people face a clear and present risk of being exposed to life-threatening sexually transmitted diseases completely against their will. Recent coverage of child sexual abuse scandals in the news have made this clear-whether it is at Penn State, Hollywood, or a community closer to home. We can’t afford to let stigma and our squeamishness keep us from protecting our kids.
Many of our young people are still in that golden window of opportunity to get the vaccine: women and girls between the ages of 13 and 26, and men and boys between the ages of 13 and 21. It is our responsibility to make sure that our young people take full advantage of this extraordinary shield against a deadly disease – whether that means parents taking their teenagers to get their shots or empowered young adults taking control of their health on their own.
We need to banish our discomfort, forget the taboo, and let common sense, love for our children, and medical science lead the way to a future without cervical cancer.