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Haitian American women are disproportionately affected by cervical cancer


More than 300,000 women around the world die from cervical cancer each year, even though the disease is actually preventable. In the U.S., women of Haitian descent are diagnosed with the illness at higher rates. From member station WLRN, Veronica Zaragovia reports on efforts to try to prevent the disease in Miami's Little Haiti.

VERONICA ZARAGOVIA, BYLINE: Miami's Little Haiti has a clinic that locals know well. It's called the Center for Haitian Studies, and it's been here for decades. Inside this sun-filled clinic, Valentine Cesar makes it a point to chat in Haitian Creole with patients waiting in the lobby.

VALENTINE CESAR: (Speaking Haitian Creole).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Haitian Creole).

ZARAGOVIA: Cesar is a community health worker with the University of Miami, which has partnered with this clinic so that Cesar can teach people about preventing cervical cancer. One of the leading causes of cervical cancer is the human papillomavirus, or HPV. Cesar shows women how to use a self-test for HPV.

CESAR: We have a little jar, and this is a cotton swab. We tell them to go to the bathroom.

ZARAGOVIA: It's not much different from using a tampon, and it's quicker and less invasive than getting a pelvic exam, which is the other way to test for HPV. The self-collected sample gets tested in a lab. If they come back positive for the virus, that's where Cesar's people skills come in.

It's not an easy conversation to have that someone has HPV, right? There's a lot of...

CESAR: Yeah, panic. Sure. That's why before we even take the specimen, you explain to them that the fact that you are HPV positive, that doesn't mean that you have cancer.

ZARAGOVIA: But it does mean you'll need to be monitored for cancer through more frequent testing with a doctor. Education makes up a big part of the effort to eradicate cervical cancer. Cesar and her colleagues talk to patients in the clinic and also inside an RV owned by the cancer center. They park it behind the clinic. Up until recently, Dinah Trevil oversaw the RV. She gave me a tour.

DINAH TREVIL: So someone would just walk in. This is an education and consultation area. As you can see, there is a screen here that we often...

ZARAGOVIA: She says Haitian women sometimes avoid the doctor.

TREVIL: They have the belief, if I'm going to the physician, I'm going to find out some bad news. I would rather not go.

ZARAGOVIA: Nicole Daceus took a self-test for HPV earlier this year.

NICOLE DACEUS: (Speaking Haitian Creole).

ZARAGOVIA: Daceus is saying Haitian women sometimes avoid the doctor because they don't have health insurance or their immigration papers. No one at this clinic will ask patients about their immigration status, though. Earlier this year, an official from the World Health Organization, Richard Freeman, came from Switzerland to visit this RV. Freeman says that this kind of outreach work is vital to the WHO's specific goal of ending cervical cancer globally.

RICHARD FREEMAN: Cervical cancer is the one cancer that we can actually eliminate. We have the tools, and all it is is a choice of whether or not we're going to go ahead and put those tools into use.

ZARAGOVIA: Another tool is to vaccinate children against HPV. No one, Freeman says, should die from a disease that tests and vaccines can prevent.

For NPR News, I'm Veronica Zaragovia in the Little Haiti neighborhood of Miami.


SIMON: And that story comes from NPR's partnership with WLRN and Kaiser Health News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Verónica Zaragovia was born in Cali, Colombia, and grew up in South Florida. She’s been a lifelong WLRN listener and is proud to cover health care for the station. Verónica has a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master's degree in journalism. For many years, Veronica lived out of a suitcase (or two) in New York City, Tel Aviv, Hong Kong, Las Vegas, D.C., San Antonio and Austin, where she worked as the statehouse and health care reporter with NPR member station KUT.
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