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US Lawmakers Should Protect Vaccination Mandates, Sex Ed in Schools

January Is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month in the US

© 2022 Laura Freeman for Human Rights Watch

Cervical cancer should be almost nonexistent, as it's one of the most treatable and preventable cancers. However, women in the United States are still dying at alarming rates.

In 2009, the US Congress established January as Cervical Cancer Awareness Month. This month serves as a public health campaign to educate people who have a cervix about how to take care of it. This includes noticing signs of cervical cancer, getting a vaccination, and checking in with a gynecologist.

Most forms of cervical cancer are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV). The two strands of HPV that cause 75 percent of cervical cancers can be prevented through the HPV vaccine – a series of shots administered to people between the ages of 9 and 45. With such an effective solution, one might think cervical cancer was nothing to worry about and that our advocacy efforts should focus elsewhere.

US states like Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, where rates are especially high, prove otherwise. Also, because of legacies of anti-Blackness, systemic racism, discrimination, and inequitable healthcare services, Black people are disproportionately impacted by cervical cancer rates and deaths across the US.

Ensuring that healthcare is accessible and affordable – including the HPV vaccination – plays a pivotal role in addressing racial inequities around cervical cancer, including in who gets sick and who dies. But new risks need to be faced, too. This includes state lawmakers’ attacks on  and the growing anti-vaccination movement.

Some states want to end public school vaccination mandates. Although HPV vaccination is not among those required before children can enroll in public schools, raising awareness about the HPV vaccine is a key part of the advocacy around cervical cancer prevention. The “anti-vax” movement has the potential to set this work back.

If young people can't receive sexual health education and vaccine information in schools, and if school mandates for vaccines are removed, the impact on cervical cancer rates could be devastating. This is why campaigns like Georgia’s Adolescent Power and Potential which call for legislation that would mandate sexual education and vaccination information in schools need our attention. Cervical cancer is highly preventable, and we should not allow lawmakers to strip these healthcare decisions from young people, including Black girls and youth. 

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