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Expanding Access to Cancer Screenings in the US Would Save Lives

New Federal Bill Focuses on Women of Color

Ms. Frances Ford, executive director of Sowing Seeds of Hope, in her home in August 2018, holding a picture of her mother, who died from cervical cancer after being diagnosed in 1980. Ford is a tireless advocate for bringing healthcare and a rural hospital to her hometown of Marion in Perry County, Alabama. Sowing Seeds of Hope provides a range of community programs, including free school screenings to children, free blood pressure clinics, quarterly health fairs and offers prescription assistance while also supporting programs to build homes in the county. © 2018 Roopa Gogineni for Human Rights Watch

Cervical cancer is a disease no one should die from. It’s highly preventable and treatable, and if caught early, the five-year survival rate is over 90 percent. Unfortunately, over 4,000 women in the United States die from the disease each year, and women of color and low-income women are disproportionately impacted. But a new bill focused on expanding access to critical cancer screenings and diagnostic tests could help save lives.

Human Rights Watch research over the past five years has underscored the importance of equitable and affordable access to preventive screenings and reproductive health care to eliminate cervical cancer deaths. Unfortunately, too many women face barriers in accessing the screenings and diagnostic services that could save their lives. Obstacles include lack of health insurance and challenges around transportation to and from appointments, especially for women living in rural communities. We’ve spoken to women who couldn’t afford regular cancer screenings because they needed to pay their household water and electricity bills. 

Many women often don’t even have access to sexual and reproductive health information that could help prevent HPV — a common sexually transmitted infection that leads to the majority of cervical cancer cases. Women have the right to access comprehensive sexual and reproductive health information and services, without discrimination.

A new bill introduced today by California Congressman Jimmy Gomez and Washington Senator Patty Murray, the Jeannette Acosta Invest in Women’s Health Act of 2021, would help address many of these barriers. Named after a former congressional staffer who passed away after a late-stage cervical cancer diagnosis in 2017, the bill would expand access to preventive and life-saving screenings for cancers that most frequently affect women, with a focus on women of color.

Covid-19 has exposed and exacerbated the disastrous consequences structural racism and other inequalities have had on access to healthcare and created additional challenges in accessing cancer screenings for those already struggling to receive them. The US government should take concrete steps to address glaring racial disparities in health. Ensuring women of color and women living in rural and neglected communities have access to life-saving cancer screenings is a start.  

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