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WHO recognises Black woman’s groundbreaking contributions to medicine 70 years after death

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THE World Health Organization (WHO) has recognised the life and legacy of a Black woman named Henrietta Lacks, whose body cells became the first ‘immortal’ cell line that led to many ground-breaking contributions to medicine.

Lacks was diagnosed of cervical cancer and died on October 4, 1951 at the age of 31 years. During treatment, researchers took samples of her tumour without her consent which was used to produce the ‘HeLa’ cell line – the first immortal line of human cells to divide indefinitely in a laboratory.

Delivering a posthumous award to her 87-year-old son Lawrence Lacks in Geneva on Wednesday, WHO’s Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the occasion was also an opportunity to recognise women, particularly women of colour, who had made incredible but often unseen contributions to medical science.

“In honouring Henrietta Lacks, WHO acknowledges the importance of reckoning with past scientific injustices, and advancing racial equity in health and science,”  Tedros said.

Lacks’ son Lawrence, one of the last living relatives who personally knew her, said his mother’s contributions to medicine which was once hidden, had now been rightfully honored for their global impact.

“My mother was a pioneer in life, giving back to her community, helping others live a better life and caring for others. In death she continues to help the world. Her legacy lives on in us,” he said.

Lacks’ cell line have allowed for incalculable scientific breakthroughs such as the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, the polio vaccine, drugs for HIV and cancers, and most recently, critical COVID-19 research.

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Sadly, Black women continue to be disproportionately affected by cervical cancer, and the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the many faultlines where health inequities persist among marginalised communities around the world.

Her great-grand daughter Victoria Baptiste, who is a registered nurse, advocated for equitable access to the breakthroughs that her HeLa cells advanced such as the HPV vaccine.

“It is only fitting that as we commemorate the 70th anniversary of Henrietta Lacks’ HeLa cells and her untimely passing, we build upon her legacy by ensuring equitable access to advances in cancer prevention and treatment for all people, ” she noted.

Her family also joins WHO in advocating for equity in access to the HPV vaccine, which protects against a range of cancers, including cervical cancer.

Despite having been prequalified by WHO over 12 years ago, supply constraints and high prices still prevent adequate doses from reaching girls in low-and-middle income countries.

As at 2020, less than 25 per cent of low-income countries and less than 30 per cent of lower-middle-income countries had access to the HPV vaccine through their national immunisation programmes, compared with more than 85 per cent of high-income countries, according to the WHO.

“It is unacceptable that access to the lifesaving HPV vaccine can be shaped by your race, ethnicity or where you happen to be born,” said Assistant Director-General for Strategic Priorities and Special Advisor to the Director General Princess Nothemba  Simelela.

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Studies in various countries consistently document that Black women are dying of cervical cancer at several times the rate of white women, while 19 of the 20 countries with the highest cervical cancer burdens are in Africa.

 

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