Here is a public health statistic about Texas that we wish weren’t true: It has among the highest rates of deaths from cervical cancer in the nation, according to a recent report by the nonprofit Human Rights Watch.
The report ranked all the states for this sad statistic. Alabama had the worst death rate from cervical cancer, which now can be largely prevented by vaccine: 3.9 of every 100,000 women. Texas was tied for sixth place with several other states. According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, the figure in the state is 3 deaths per 100,000 women.
These figures give grim awareness to the importance of Cervical Health Awareness Month, which runs through January. And the best tool for preventing this cancer is the vaccine against the strains of the human papilloma virus (HPV) that cause almost all of the cases. More than 30,000 women a year die of cervical cancer in the United States.
So this also is a time to take note of some more statistics: Alabama and Texas also have among the lowest vaccination rates for HPV in the nation. In Connecticut and Massachusetts, which have the two lowest rates of cervical cancer deaths, vaccination rates are well above the national average..
Of course, many other factors are involved. The HPV vaccine is recommended for pre-teens, teens and young women, and it has only been around for about 13 years. That means many women are beyond the age where they would have received the vaccine, no matter where they live.
Screening for cervical cancer also is key; Pap smears can detect precancerous conditions, which can be treated before cancer becomes a threat. Scientists also have been at work on a new DNA-based test for cervical cancer. Th eHuman Rights Watch report says that many low-income, rural women in Alabama, especially African American women, have little access to the health care they need for regular screening.
But vaccination rates are expected to be a major factor in future cervical cancer statistics. Research has shown that HPV rates appear to be significantly lower in areas with high vaccination rates, which translates into significantly fewer cases of cervical cancer in the future– as well as cancers of the mouth, throat, penis and anus.
The vaccine “radically decreases the chance of developing cervical cancer by protecting against the strains that are responsible for 75 to 90 percent of all cervical cancer cases,” the Human Rights Watch report says.
Why aren’t more young people being vaccinated against cancer? Sadly, myths are continually circulated accusing the vaccine of causing side effects, despite numerous high-quality studies showing that it is both safe and effective. Because these myths are often circulated on social media by acquaintances, parents tend to believe them despite the lack of verification. Some parents object to the vaccine on religious grounds. And in many cases, families might have trouble gaining access to the vaccine. They may lack insurance, or live in rural areas where access to doctors and health clinics can be difficult, involving long rides by bus. A 2016 report by The Immunization Partnership showed this was a concern among health care providers in Texas.
We can all support policies that protect public health by providing access to important medical treatment such as life-saving vaccinations. And we should all support a belief that protecting the future health and lives of our children is paramount.
Let’s spread that message this month, and work to bring future numbers of cervical-cancer deaths down to a tiny fraction of what they are today.