By Linda Finklea
Last November, I spoke to a 32-year-old mother at the daycare where I work part-time in Camden, a small town in rural Wilcox County in Alabama’s Black Belt. I shared information about cervical cancer prevention and the HPV vaccine, which protects against several types of cancer. I was shocked that this mother, who regularly attends doctor appointments and her gynecologist, had never heard of the vaccine.
She was also outraged and wondered why this information had never been shared with her. She was grateful that I spoke to her and she immediately made an appointment for her 13-year-old daughter to have the vaccination.
Unfortunately, this conversation is not uncommon. As part of my engagement since August 2022 as an advocate in partnership with the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative for Economic and Social Justice (SRBWI) and Human Rights Watch, I have had so many conversations with people in my community about cervical cancer prevention and the HPV Vaccine. I have realized how little information my community has about their sexual and reproductive health. I spoke to women who hadn’t had a Pap test in years because they didn’t know they were supposed to get one, and to so many other parents who had also never heard of the HPV vaccine. This is life-saving information that everyone should have, and it’s alarming and upsetting how few people do it.
Cervical cancer is highly preventable and treatable, yet approximately 4,200 women die from the disease in the United States each year, and black women are dying at an alarming rate. In Alabama, black women are much more likely to die from cervical cancer than white women (4.7 vs. 2.9), and black women living in rural counties like mine have the highest death rates in the entire state. Previous research by SRBWI and Human Rights Watch in Alabama and Georgia has documented how lack of access to sexual health information contributes to preventable cervical cancer deaths, and I regret to see the same patterns playing out in my own community.
People don’t know what they don’t know. Without information, people don’t know how best to protect themselves and stay healthy. Sexual health education is optional in Alabama schools, and our state code requires an emphasis on abstinence. As a result, most young people do not learn about their sexual and reproductive health in schools, and too many adults do not have accurate information to share either. In rural areas like mine, getting through to a doctor or the health department for an appointment or information, or getting information on the internet when the broadband is unreliable, is a real challenge.
Over the last few months I have done everything I can to change that and I will continue to do so in January, Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, and well beyond. I have submitted to community events including health fairs and community rallies. I spoke to parents and young people. I visited the Health Department to get more information about the services they offer. Wherever I go I have given out resources and pamphlets. Now that I have this information, I’m committed to doing everything I can to ensure my community members do the same. And I can already see what a difference it makes. I heard from four parents who had their children vaccinated against HPV after speaking to me.
But it shouldn’t be up to me to change that. Everyone should have cervical cancer prevention information and information about the HPV vaccine, and women who live in predominantly black counties like mine that have been neglected for too long face greater obstacles to getting it. We need to do more to ensure everyone has information and resources on how to prevent cervical cancer. Requiring schools to provide comprehensive sexual health education is only a first step, but I’m confident it would make a big difference.
Linda Finklea is a longtime member of the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative for Economic and Social Justice (SRBWI) in Wilcox County, Ala.