At a booth at a health fair in Indianapolis, a 27 year-old African American woman named Sasha clicks through a computerized survey about cervical cancer. “I’m here taking advantage of all the free health screenings they have today, just to find out things to take care of my body,” she says.
By taking this survey, she’s also helping solve a health problem for African American women who are more likely to get cervical cancer and nearly twice as likely as white women to die of the disease.
“Understanding the behaviors and beliefs surrounding cervical cancer in the African American community is really important,” says Monica Kasting, the Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis researcher who designed the survey. Kasting is conducting research and working with the Indiana University Simon Cancer Center to understand what people believe about cervical cancer, and how those beliefs affect their chances for getting the disease.
Cervical cancer kills about 4,000 women in the U.S. every year. That’s nothing close to the 40,000 killed annually by breast cancer, But almost all of those 4,000 deaths are preventable because there’s a vaccine for HPV, the common sexually transmitted disease that causes most cervical cancer.
Despite its effectiveness, the HPV vaccine does has low completion rates, especially among African Americans. Eight years ago, the federal government starting recommending a three-dose series of the vaccine for girls and women, preferably starting at age 11 or 12, and available up to age 26. But the vaccine has been slow to roll out. (In 2011 the government started recommending it for boys as well.) Today, only 38 percent of women and girls of all races and only 34 percent of African American women and girls complete the recommended three doses.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists published a statement earlier this month urging physicians to educate patients about completing the vaccine series.
“Having conversations with providers helps people make the best decisions,” says Dr. Michelle Owens, an obstetrician-gynecologist who serves on the committee that published the statement. She says it’s important to note that unlike other cancers, cervical cancer is almost entirely preventable.
“In my mind, any of those lives that we lose are senselessly lost because we actually could have done something to prevent it,” she says.
Right now, Kasting says there isn’t solid research explaining why African Americans have lower rates of completion of the vaccine series. It may have to do with access to care, mistrust of the medical system, or lack of knowledge about the vaccine.
“We aren’t exactly sure why it is completely, but we’re working on figuring it out and closing the gap,” she says.
As Sasha continues the survey at the health fair, she’s surprised to learn there’s a vaccine that she could have gotten anytime in the last nine years to prevent a form of cancer.
Sasha never heard about the HPV vaccine when she was a teen, the prime time to get vaccinated. (It's recommended for both teen girls and boys before they become sexually active.) Now she sees her family doctor regularly, but, “she has not ever mentioned anything to me about the HPV vaccine,” says Sasha. “Now I want to know why.”
Amy Gastelum is a public health nurse turned reporter and podcaster. You can tweet to her @MotherAPodcast