Henrietta Lacks in Haiti – Tackling the epidemic of cervical cancer

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For those of you who may not have heard of Henrietta Lacks, allow me to provide a short tutorial of her immortal importance after her death. Ms Lacks died of an aggressive form of cervical cancer in 1951 at the age of 31. During this same time, researchers at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore were attempting to grow tissue cultures from human cells. Most of these cell lines died within a few days, but the tissue obtained from Ms Lacks tumor reproduced at a high rate and could be kept alive to allow for further study. The cell line became known as HeLa and was instrumental in developing the polio vaccine 3 years later as well as other breakthroughs in medical science. We now understand that the reason that her cells reproduced so rapidly, and also why she suffered from such an aggressive form of cervical cancer at a young age, is that her cells were infected with a high risk strand of HPV (human papilloma virus) which caused uncontrolled growth of infected cells. This understanding has led to the Gardasil vaccine as well as more sophisticated HPV testing, both of which have the ability to eradicate cervical cancer from the globe.

Cervical cancer is becoming strikingly more important from a global health perspective for two reasons:  Maternal mortality has been reduced by almost 50% and HIV infected woman are living longer on retroviral medication. Unlike Henrietta Lacks, most women don’t die of cervical cancer until their 40’s to 50’s. Keeping more women alive in childbirth means that there will be a larger contingent of women susceptible to the effects of HPV. Women living with HIV, although appearing healthy when taking daily retroviral medication, have a depressed immune system and are more likely to develop cervical cancer when exposed to HPV.  Currently, 85% of world-wide deaths due to cervical cancer occur in the low and middle income countries.

During my 25 years of practice in the US I have encountered 4 cases of cervical cancer. Each of those cases occurred in a woman who had not had a pap smear or pelvic exam in more than 10 years. More than 50% of cases of cervical cancer in the US are not due to the inadequacy of screening but rather to the lack of screening. With the recent addition of HPV testing to pap smears, the accuracy of this test has improved even further. My   work in Haiti has revealed a much different picture. In 15 trips over the past 10 years, I have diagnosed 12 cases of cervical cancer, all of which were well advanced. By some accounts, Haiti has the highest incidence of cervical cancer in the world with 94 cases per 100,000 women. Cervical cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in Haitian women, with 1500 Haitians succumbing every year. It kills nearly as many women as all other cancers combined. This is in comparison to the US, where cervical cancer accounts for only 3% of female cancer deaths. Keep in mind that cervical cancer is one of the few cancers that we currently have the ability to not only prevent but also to treat pre-cancerous lesions before they progress to cancer. Cervical cancer can become a forgotten disease in 25 years.

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On the same evening that Henrietta Lacks premiered as an Oprah movie on HBO, I boarded a flight to Port au Prince, Haiti to participate in a conference addressing the need for a cervical cancer screening program in a country with low resources. Members of the Ministry of Health, Haitian ob/gyns and American aide groups came together to discuss and formulate a future plan. We discussed what works and what doesn’t work, the need for education in the community and how best to use limited resources to benefit the majority of women. Haiti sans Cervical Cancer has a tremendous amount of work to accomplish, but is stronger when everyone is pulling in the same direction.

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Partners in Health, known as Zamni Lasante in Haiti, is part of our coalition of Haitian organizations that has approached seemingly insurmountable world-wide public health challenges in the past. They were pioneers in improving tuberculosis treatment when multi-drug resistance to the disease became problematic and were instrumental in bringing HIV medications to poor people suffering from the disease. In both of those cases, the “experts” said it couldn’t be done but PIH proved them wrong. Cervical cancer is an equally deadly disease, killing mothers in the prime of their lives. The solution, however, is much less expensive – receiving 2 doses of the Gardasil vaccine as a young teenager and then a $10 HPV test every 5 years starting in your mid 20s until mid 50’s. By reducing the rate of maternal mortality by 50%, we have been successful keeping many more women alive during childbirth – now we need to tackle the disease that can kill these women later in life.

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