Ending Cervical Cancer Requires Ending Disparities in Access to Pap Tests and HPV Vaccines

By Christine Cupaiuolo — January 13, 2012

Every year in the United States alone, more than 12,000 women are diagnosed and more than 4,000 women die of cervical cancer, a preventable disease that disproportionately affects women of color.

January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, and the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health (NLIRH) is launching “¡Acábalo Ya! Working Together to End Cervical Cancer.” The campaign is aimed at educating Latinas about this disease and how to protect their health; raising the profile of cervical cancer prevention as a national reproductive justice and women’s health priority; and advocating for greater access to the tools and care needed to prevent, detect, and eventually end cervical cancer.

The NLIRH is hosting a blog carnival this week on the topic: What will it take to end cervical cancer? Read more on Why Cervical Cancer is a LGBT Issue by Verónica Bayetti-Flores, NLIRH policy research specialist; Cervical Cancer Awareness Month: Trans Men and Genderqueer/Gender Nonconforming People by the National Center for Transgender EqualityScreen More Women for Cervical Cancer – Not the Same Women More Often! by Kate Ryan, program coordinator, National Women’s Health Network; and Thank YOU Affordable Care Act for Helping Cervixes Stay Healthy by Keely Monroe, program coordinator, National Women’s Health Network.

The following text on disparities in access to Pap tests and HPV vaccines has been adapted from the 2011 edition of “Our Bodies, Ourselves.”

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Most women who die of cervical cancer never had regular Pap tests, had false-negative results, or did not receive proper follow-up.

In the United States, socioeconomic and racial disparities are evident in statistics for cervical cancer. Vietnamese immigrants are five times more likely to be diagnosed with cervical cancer than white women. African-American and Native-American women are twice as likely to die of the disease as are white women. In one study, Hispanic women had about twice the cervical cancer incidence of non-Hispanic women in border counties near Mexico, and Hispanic women are 1.5 times more likely to die from cervical cancer as compared to non-Hispanic white women.

Disparities are due, at least in part, to women of color having less access to Pap screening and regular health care. It is quite possible that those women with the highest rates of cervical cancer will also have less access not only to Pap screening but also to the HPV vaccine. Until our health care system addresses such disparities in access, girls and women likely to benefit the most from this vaccine may well not be able to choose it.

To ensure more equal access to any adolescent vaccine, adequate infrastructure and resources must be made available. Some recommend implementation of school-based adolescent immunization programs similar to those formerly in place for delivery of hepatitis B vaccines. The United Kingdom and Australia have volunteer, nationally supported school-based campaigns that have resulted in high HPV vaccine coverage for about 70 percent of girls.

Currently, school-based health programs and routine preventive care visits for adolescents are limited in the United States, making it highly difficult to provide good access to HPV vaccines, especially the type of access needed to ensure all three required vaccine doses are administered. Available data suggest HPV vaccine coverage in the United States is low (less than 50 percent), and the proportion of girls receiving all three doses of the HPV vaccine is even lower (less than 25 percent).

Pap Tests Essential for Prevention and Treatment

HPV vaccines do not protect against all types of HPV associated with cervical cancer, and it is currently unclear how long they remain effective or whether booster shots will be needed to maintain protection throughout adulthood. Thus, regular Pap tests among sexually active women remain essential for cervical cancer prevention. Resources should not be diverted away from Pap screening programs to pay for the unusually expensive cervical cancer vaccine. Because Merck marketed Gardasil with a campaign that unnecessarily frightened girls, young women, and parents, many people now have a distorted view of this disease, the vaccine, and the continued importance of Pap screening.

There is no question that HPV vaccines represent an important scientific advance in the field of vaccine research, but exaggerating their potential benefit in places such as North America will not serve us well. In countries where there is little or no access to Pap screening, current HPV vaccines might have much more potential for saving lives if their costs were reduced considerably and if adequate infrastructure to prove them responsibly were securely in place.

The District of Columbia and dozens of states — many of which have been lobbied by vaccine makers to expand vaccination requirements — have introduced legislation to require, fund, or educate the public about the HPV vaccine. However, since 30 percent of infections are now caused by virus types for which the HPV vaccines do not provide protection, universal access to Pap tests remains critically important. Unfortunately, many girls in underserved communities (where HPV infection rates are often high) have less access to both the Pap test and the HPV vaccine.

For example, as of September 2009, when the CDC released its first state-level statistics for Gardasil, only 15.8 percent of girls in the relatively poor state of Mississippi had received the vaccine, compared with 54.7 percent of girls in the relatively wealthy state of Rhode Island. Partly because of greater access to Pap testing, the cervical cancer mortality rate in Rhode Island was already 50 percent lower than in Mississippi — which means the girls in Rhode Island are at much lower risk of contracting HPV to start with.

To reduce disparities for Latinas and other under-served women, we will need to make systemic changes in our health care system to increase access to screening and vaccinations for those who need it most.

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