A staggering number of Latinas in Los Angeles County are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year and die from this preventable cancer at rates higher than the national average.
In East and South Los Angeles, where many Latinas reside, the death rates from the disease are among the state’s highest, at 5.1 percent and 4.6 percent, respectively.
As part of a national campaign, the California Medical Association (CMA) Foundation is raising awareness about cervical cancer and vaccinations that can prevent the disease.
Elissa Maas, vice president of programs at the foundation, told a May round-table program in Los Angeles,“When we work arm in arm with physicians, providers and ethnic media, we have a better chance of addressing the health issues that are so critical to our community.”
Sexually Transmitted Virus
Cervical cancer is caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), which is transmitted sexually. Nearly 80 percent of men and women in the United States are exposed to the virus by age 50. Although the immune system fights off the virus in most people, for some the infection develops into cancer.
Screening through a pap smear, where the cervix is scraped and examined for changes, is the only way to detect the cancer in women.
“It’s not that Latinas are at higher risk for HPV. They get it at the same rate as other women⎯ the difference is in the screening,” said Rita Singhal, medical director of the Office of Women’s Health at the Los Angeles County Department of Health.
“The number one risk factor for being diagnosed with cervical cancer is never having had a pap smear, or having your last pap smear more than five years ago,” she said. Medical experts recommend that women get their first pap smear at age 18.
A key issue for Latinas is that they tend not to access free or low-cost resources for health screening available nationwide.
Carole Jordan-Harris, of the Association of Black Women Physicians, observed that culturally competent care and materials in Spanish are important for treating Latinas.
Men can play a key role in the message that cervical cancer prevention is part of family health, participants said. HPV also can infect the mouth, throat and rectum of both men and women.
“Men can be the barrier to the access to women’s care—[Latina patients] they always say they have to ask their husbands,” said Rita Oregon, a participant in the CMA Foundation gathering. She runs a colonoscopy clinic that also diagnoses and treats the effects of abnormal pap smears.
The most recent woman Oregon diagnosed with cervical cancer was a 33-year-old mother. “Her baby is four years old, and that’s the last pap smear she got,” Oregon said.
The woman also has children ages six and eight, making it difficult for her to find time to visit a doctor.
Cervical cancer is highly treatable when caught in the first three stages, but in the late stage the survival rate is low.
Stressing the importance of screening, Anita Nelson of the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, said, “We don’t want to find cancer; we want to find changes that can lead to cancer to treat immediately.”
Vaccines to protect against HPV are approved for boys and girls as young as age nine and are recommended for girls and women from ages 11 to 26. The vaccine, which consists of a series of three shots over six months, reduces the risk of cancer by 70 percent.
Cervical cancer screenings are available free for low-income women through California’s federally funded Every Woman Counts program and other services. The vaccines are covered by insurance as well as the Vaccines for Children program for young women and girls.
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