New research might help explain why black women are more likely than white women to develop and die from cervical cancer. The study revealed that black women appear to have more difficulties in clearing HPV, the virus that causes cervical cancer.
Doctors believed that less access to screening and follow-up health care were the main reasons black women are 40% more likely to develop cervical cancer and twice as likely to die from it.
The new study involving young American college women suggests there might be a biological explanation for the racial disparity, too.
Certain strains of HPV cause cervical cancer. Brief infections are very common in young women and they usually go away on their own within a year or so. They only pose a cancer risk when they last long-term.
Researchers at the University of South Carolina in Columbia studied 326 white and 113 black students taking part in a wider federal health study. All were given Pap tests and HPV tests every six months throughout their years in school.
The study showed that the HPV virus stays in black women’s systems for 18 months – for white women, it is only 12. Although the groups were similar in how many new HPV infections were detected and risk factors such as how many sex partners they had, doctors saw striking differences in how long their infections lasted.
At any check-up, the black students were 1.5 times more likely to test positive for infection with one of the HPV strains that raise cancer risk.
Study leader Kim Creek said “‘The African-American women weren’t clearing the virus as fast. They were actually holding onto it about six months longer,’ for 18 months versus 12 months for whites”.
Ten per cent of black students had abnormal Pap tests versus six per cent of white students. Two years after initial infections were found, 56 per cent of black women were still infected but only 24 per cent of white women remained infected.
Worta McCaskill-Stevens, a prevention specialist at the US National Cancer Institute commented “If further study confirms this novel finding, it would make the HPV vaccine even more important for black women. The results are provocative and need validation in a study that looks beyond this one region”.
She continued ‘We have known there are genetic differences between the races and it’s possible that a gene from certain ancestries such as African might play a role in the ability to clear an HPV infection”.