Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Waiting to Die: Cervical Cancer in America

Cervical cancer is a hotly-debated political topic in the United States right now - a debate fuelled largely by Republican presidential contenders. The cancer is caused by strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV), which is sexually transmitted. As a result, discourse on cervical cancer centres around whether or not newly available vaccines to prevent the disease encourage promiscuity.

This argument entirely misses the most scandalous fact about cervical cancer in the US: its geography. Where a woman lives in the US largely determines whether she will suffer from the disease - and whether she will die from it.

Cervical cancer is extraordinarily slow-growing, taking 10-15 years for invasive cells to develop. Even without the vaccine, the cancer is completely preventable. Routine Pap tests that cost between $25 and $40 detect abnormal cells, and these cells can then be removed during a visit to a doctor's office. If all American women had these tests and received follow-up care as recommended, cervical cancer would go the way of small pox and polio in the US - eradicated.

But every year 4,000 American women die from the disease, most of them in the South. For instance, a woman in Mississippi is nearly twice as likely to die from cervical cancer as an average American woman. 


The seemingly obvious answer is that Mississippi is the poorest state in the US, and therefore must have a lot of residents without health insurance. But when Mississippi is compared to a state like California, which has a similar rate of uninsured people, Mississippi's death rate from cervical cancer remains extraordinary: 75 per cent higher than that in California.