On the why.
In the US, the rate of cervical cancer death in 2008 (per 100,000 women) was 1.7.
In Honduras, that number was 19.7.
In the US, the estimated % of women who had been regularly screened was 84%.
In Honduras, that percentage was 26%.
Why does this matter?
In a nutshell, cervical cancer is pretty easy to screen for. Most of the women who read this post will have had a Pap test annually, or at least every 2-3 years, for the majority of their adult lives. Because cervical cancer grows slowly, regular screening makes it pretty darn easy to detect abnormal cells early enough to intervene and treat before the cancer becomes life-threatening. Between the HPV vaccine and the strong screening program here in the US, cervical cancer ranks as the 13th most prevalent cancer among women…while in Honduras, it come in as #1.
Screening rates in the developing world are much lower than in high-income countries like the United States. While there are certainly a host of other reasons why cervical cancer mortality may be higher (such as access to the HPV vaccine or sexual practices), implementing a screening program is a high impact and relatively low cost way to greatly reduce it. In a rural region like the one we work in, screening is particularly infrequent. Access to medical services is extremely low, and the ability to afford the few services offered even lower. This summer, we hope to provide 400-500 women with Pap smears…something I’ve dreaded (but benefited from!) without so much as a second thought every year since I was 15.
Why do we focus on cervical cancer?
Because by providing free screening and follow-up care, we can make a tangible difference in health outcomes. And that is pretty exciting.
Sources: WHO/ICO Information Centre on Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) and Cervical Cancer: http://www.who.int/hpvcentre/statistics/en/