Monday, January 15, 2007
Stop a killer, but promote sex? That is the question...
Forty-three years after Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have A Dream" speech, this country is still divided, particularly when it comes to disparities in health care. January is National Cervical Cancer Awareness Month. The numbers couldn't be more telling: Each year cervical cancer kills thousands of women, and, according to the American Cancer Society, the number of new cases of cervical cancer is more than 50 percent higher in black women than in whites. And African American women are more than twice as likely to die from the disease.
Family history, smoking and being overweight all increase your risk for this cancer. However, it has a high cure rate if caught early, and regular pap smears, which detect abnormal or cancer cells are critical.
But the single most important risk comes from a sexually transmitted disease called human papilloma virus or HPV. There is no cure or treatment, but since last year, there is a vaccine - Gardasil - the first, and only, vaccine to prevent HPV and cervical cancer. It's approved for use in girls and women ages 9 to 26, and it protects against 70 percent of cervical cancers.
Here in the nation's capital, a controversy over the vaccine is brewing. Last week, the city council introduced a bill that could make the District of Columbia one of the first jurisdictions, to require vaccinating sixth-grade girls - under 13 years old - mandatory.
Proponents of Gardasil hope that vaccinating children before they're sexually active will reduce the risk of HPV infection and cervical cancer. Opponents fear that by hearing about sex, and a sexually transmitted disease, so early, young girls might be less likely to abstain and more likely to become sexually active.
I don't live in D.C., but I am a black woman and the mother of a 10-year-old daughter. If history is a judge, she has a greater risk of getting cervical cancer than her white girlfriends. I haven't had a conversation yet with her pediatrician about the HPV vaccine, and I would like to think that I still have a few years before I need to talk to my daughter about STDs. The questions remain for many - what age is appropriate to talk about HPV and the vaccine? Should it be mandatory? Or is this much ado about nothing?
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