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HPV: The Not-So-Silent Killer of Black Women

My one-night stand five years ago resulted in two lifelong outcomes: I was blessed with my beautiful daughter and burdened with the human papillomavirus (HPV). Living with HPV presents challenges and risks to all women. But as a Black woman, HPV is statistically more dangerous for me.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HPV is so common that almost everyone who is sexually active will get it. That’s a problem because HPV can cause many types of cancer, including cancer of the vagina, vulva, anus, penis, mouth, throat and cervix. While cervical cancer occurs more often in Hispanic women, Black women die sooner and more often than women of any other race who are diagnosed with the deadly disease.

The reason for the heightened danger to Black women is complicated. One obvious problem is that until last month, the vaccines approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) did not protect against the strains of HPV most prevalent in Black women. That means that the two HPV vaccines currently available likely fail to protect women like me. While the newly approved, but as of now unavailable vaccine will hopefully provide protection against at least some of the HPV strains common in Black women, it likely will not cover all of them. Even if the new vaccine protects Black women completely, we still have to address the other causes of increased infection and death.

According to a study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Blacks receive worse health care than whites, and experience 40 percent poorer health-related outcomes. The reasons for the disparities range from a lack of access to health care to receiving culturally incompetent care when we finally do access it. Black women, especially low-income women, suffer even more as access to the full range of reproductive health care services is continually restricted. I know this from my own experience.

Thanks to my HPV diagnosis, I must have pap smears at least twice a year to test for abnormal cervical cells. As is the case for many women of color and/or low-income women, there weren’t any affordable health care providers in my neighborhood.  I had to travel six hours round-trip to reach a women’s health center. When you add the time I spent waiting to see the doctor and getting the exam, I spent almost an entire workday to get a routine pap smear. Even if my medical visit was scheduled on an off day, I still had to arrange child care for a full day. And if a family member couldn’t watch my daughter, that meant even greater expense and another obstacle to seeking a lifesaving cancer screening.

Getting to the doctor is only the first of many hurdles. My own experience with HPV was marked by confusion about my medical options. There is a dearth of accessible health care information for Black women, many of whom already lack culturally competent care.

How often are women of color being allowed to simply “stay ill” because they don’t have access to clinics or to the right information? How often are women of color receiving subpar reproductive care? What are we doing for women who can’t afford to spend an entire day on a doctor’s visit?

We need to get serious about addressing these disparities head on. We must speak up, speak out and speak often about the reproductive health of all women of color. We must take a proactive role in our own health care by asking our doctors the important questions and seeking out the information we lack. We must also be allies and share that information with other women.

Sharing lived experiences with other women and girls creates awareness, increases knowledge and, most importantly, builds unity. Only by recognizing the barriers to health and creating change can we begin to build a world in which Black lives truly matter to everyone, in which our gender and our race do not affect our health care. I want my daughter to inherit that kind of world.

Tamika Jackson is an organizer for Young Women United.