Women’s health is of great importance for women across the country and in the world, but for Black women living in rural Georgia, cervical cancer is still on the rise, and it is disproportionally taking lives.
According to the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative for Economic and Social Justice, in 2021 alone, an estimated 4,290 women in the United States died from cervical cancer, including disproportionally high numbers of Black women.
Nationally, Black women are more than one and a half times as likely to die from cervical cancer as white women. In rural Georgia, Black women make up the majority of these statistics.
In rural Georgia, Black women traditionally face racial discrimination and distrust in the medical field. These are factors that are seen as compound barriers to preventing and treating cervical cancers. Other barriers include substandard access to affordable health care, a lack of gynecological care, lack of transportation to healthcare providers, and lack of information.
According to Atlanta’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 93% of cervical cancers can be preventable. This is a result of an increase of women receiving regular screenings and the HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccination. In rural areas, however, information and education about this vaccine and its importance is shown in dim light.
According to Dr. Ruchi Garg, a gynecologic oncologist at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America – Atlanta, “The HPV (or human papillomavirus) vaccine is a preventative prophylactic vaccine against the HPV virus that is associated with 99.7% of cervical cancers.”
The HPV vaccine is advised to be given to kids between the ages of nine to 45, but it is seen that most receive this vaccine in their 20s.
While this preventative measure is available to all people, both women and men, it is difficult to reach rural Black women largely due to lack of information or distrust between rural Black women and healthcare providers, among other factors.
“I think there’s always been this little bit of distrust in the medical field or in the medical community and it’s in each race on some level and it’s definitely in communities,” Dr. Garg said.
The differences in care between rural areas and metropolitan areas are baffling, with many gaining different perspectives and levels of medical care. These different perspectives can ultimately lead to levels of distrust, especially when it is tied to the history of Black women and healthcare.
“If you could range from different parts of the United States from both rural areas to the city, there would be different levels of both who would have engagement with the medical community. As a result, there are differences in medical care provision at various levels,” Dr. Garg said.
Other folds as to why many Black women in rural areas do not receive this vaccine is lack of access to care as well as a lack in education on the part of healthcare providers.
“It is also on us providers, being able to educate and dispense the right knowledge and unfortunately certain communities do suffer. Not just in regard to Black women but to all who suffer due to socioeconomic status and access to care makes a big impact,” Dr. Garg said.
With World Cancer Day being on Feb. 4, the call to action for cancer prevention is not only heightened but also amplified. While having a day dedicated to education on prevention, it should not solely be one day but year-round.
While it is important to get routine screenings and make annual appointments, the COVID-19 pandemic halted many aspects of preventative healthcare.
“With the pandemic, there have been multiple publications recently that say there has been a decline in preventative care. I remember in the beginning months of the pandemic where there was no one coming, and then all of a sudden, the medical community realized after a few months that, ‘No you can’t miss out on your basic routine screenings because we will see an upswing of cancer’. So, you know the mammograms were missed, the colonoscopies were missed, the routine wellness screenings were missed. So, there was a significant decline for women going to get their pap smears and mammograms and at these visits is where these vaccine discussions occur,” Dr. Garg said.
The decline in attending annual appointments and screenings led to a decline of around 20% of women not receiving the vaccine during the pandemic.
Out of the many steps to decrease the death rates and infection rates, the most important point for many healthcare providers is to get people vaccinated with the HPV vaccine.
“It’s a preventable cancer. Not just cancer, but so many other HPV-related diseases. These are preventable cancers, so we need to make every effort to get out there and get this knowledge out there and get the vaccination numbers higher,” Dr. Garg said.
The HPV vaccine may be available at doctor offices, community health clinics, school-based health centers, and health departments.