The Truth About Cervical Cancer in the U.S. Reveals Something Disturbing for Black Women

January 23rd 2017

Danielle DeCourcey

Black women die from cervical cancer at higher rates than white women, and a new study published Monday shows the problem is much worse than previously thought, revealing that black women in the U.S. have it as bad as women in some of the world's poorest countries.

doctor-embarassmentThe study, by researchers from the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Pubic Heath and published in the journal Cancer, found black women die from cervical cancer more than twice as often as white women: at a rate of 10.1 per 100,000, compared to 4.7 deaths per 100,000.

"This kind of health disparity, where there is clear evidence of what needs to be done, and the fact that it is being done in one group and it's not being done in another group, suggests a major problem in both access to care and attitudes," Dr. Harvey Makadon, director of education and training at Fenway Institute, who was not affiliated with the study, told ATTN:

The New York Times' Jan Hoffman reported that researchers found that "the rate at which black American women are dying from the disease is comparable to that of women in many poor developing nations." 

Before this study, the disparity for cervical cancer between black and white women was underestimated by 44 percent, according to researchers. 

Unlike previous reports, Johns Hopkins researchers did not compare cervical cancer deaths against the general population of women, but instead discounted women who do not have a cervix. 

"My work is mostly with the LGBT community and we see the same thing," Makadon said, noting marginalized people are less likely to get the screenings they need. The Fenway Institute in Boston specializes in healthcare research and advocacy for the LGBT community and people living with HIV and AIDS. 

"We know that lesbians and bisexual women get pap smears less than white heterosexual women," Makadon said. "Similarly, transgender men, who still have a cervix and need pap smears — they don't get them either." 

Why are black women dying at higher rates? 


Although this analysis did not tackle the reasons for the disparity between black and white women, previous research found lower-income people often receive lower standards of care. Research shows a significant number of medical professionals are also biased against black patients, and minorities consistently receive worse care than white patients. 

The 2015 National Healthcare Quality and Disparities report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that blacks, latinos, and Native Americans received worse care in 40 percent of "quality measures," or processes that produce high-quality healthcare or results from that healthcare. And a study published last year found the richest 1 percent of men lived more than 14 years longer than the poorest 1 percent of study participants. For women the gap was more than 10 years. 

While a lack of access to good healthcare is a problem for all low-income people, this latest study on cervical cancer focuses its analysis on black women as they are disproportionately impoverished. And as The Washington Post reported last year, black poverty is also "more isolating and concentrated" than white poverty, with poor whites often living in areas with better services than poor blacks.

Dr. Rita Singhal,  medical director of the Office of Women’s Health in the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, told ATTN: that income plays a "critical role" in healthcare disparities. 

"It defines a person’s access to health care as well as where they live and work and this in turn can influence exposure to environmental toxins, and prevalence of behavioral risk factors such as smoking, physical inactivity, and diet," she said. "Access to healthcare will determine access to cancer screening, which for this disease is hugely important as regular screening with a pap test can essentially prevent the disease."

Makadon said what's needed are programs explicitly designed to improve access to care for poor people. However, current Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, could make healthcare out of reach for millions of Americans.

"I think healthcare disparities are only going to increase unless we have access to universal healthcare," Makadon said.

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