March 2007 - Young Black Women and the Cervical Cancer Vaccine

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I've been asked repeatedly by my friends and colleagues to weigh on the issue of the cervical cancer vaccine. The questions have been endless and their opinions often emotional: "Is this a good thing?" "This is another ploy by the drug companies to make money!" "Should the vaccine be mandatory-especially for Black women? "Doesn't this new vaccine just encourage young women to have sex?" Enough of this babble-let's examine the facts.

First of all, let's be clear about one thing: Cervical cancer kills women-particularly African-American women. The American Cancer Society1 reports that an estimated 1,910 new cases of cervical cancer are expected in African-American women in 2007. Although the incidence of this disease is declining, cervical cancer is still 30% higher among African-American women when compared to white women. The death rate is also higher, with African-American women twice as likely to die from cervical cancer compared with white women. We can expect about 720 African-American women to die from cervical cancer in 2007. These 720 women are someone's daughter, sister, mother, and wife. There are faces, families, and stories that match each of these statistics. So, the problem is not just limited to the raw numbers. The impact of this disease extends to all of the lives that each of those women touch.

In my opinion, (since I've been asked for my opinion so often), anything that can help save Black women's lives is a good thing-and that includes the vaccine for cervical cancer. This vaccine gives Black women a shot (no pun intended) at a level playing field with respect to this disease-why wouldn't we protect ourselves? We vaccinate against other potentially harmful diseases-measles, mumps, small pox-why not cervical cancer?

With respect to the issue of drug companies making money-of course they're going to make money. The vaccine would not have been developed by the drug company if they didn't intend to make money. They're in the business of treating and preventing disease. But to not get the vaccine because the drug companies will make money is akin to not buying a car because the car company will make money, or not buying food because the grocery store will make money. It just doesn't make sense.

Regarding the issue of whether the vaccine encourages young girls to engage in sexual activity-my response to that is "ridiculous". If you're using the threat of cervical cancer to deter a young girl from engaging in sexual activity, then you're missing the boat. We have got to stop using the concept of disease as punishment for having sex. How do you respond when a woman who hasn't had premarital sex develops cervical cancer? Better to spend your time talking with your daughter about the value of making good decisions about her health and her sexuality--decisions that will allow her to grow into a beautiful, strong, and productive Black woman. Teach her the value of taking the time to know herself and the value of carefully choosing to share her beauty, time, and talents with someone who values who she is and what she has to offer.

If anything about the vaccine is unsettling to me, it's the fact that at least 20 states are considering mandatory vaccination. If one recognizes the benefit, then it would seem logical that a parent would want her daughter to be vaccinated, and there would be no need to mandate the vaccine. However, if for any reason-religious, cultural, political, personal-a parent does not wish to have their daughter vaccinated, and they understand the risk involved in not having the vaccine--then they should be able to opt out. While this leaves the young girl vulnerable to the disease, it is a personal choice, and we must respect the fact that each individual has the right to refuse medical treatment.

With you on your journey to wellness...
Dr. Mary S. Harris

1 American Cancer Society. Cancer Still A Heavy Burden for African-Americans. February, 1, 2007

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