My practicum is with the UNC Global Women’s Health Division, specifically the UNC-Wits-Right to Care Partnership for Cervical Cancer Prevention in Johannesburg, South Africa (SA). In SA, cervical cancer is the leading cause of cancer death among women. Although cervical cancer is largely preventable through HPV vaccination, routine screening, and treatment of cervical precancer, there are significant disparities in access to these life-saving prevention strategies within and between countries. Currently, approximately 90% of cervical cancer mortality occurs in low- and middle-income countries. While SA is considered an upper-middle income country, it is also one of the most unequal societies in the world.
Overall, health outcomes in SA remain poor relative to the country’s economic development, and cervical cancer disparities by race and socioeconomic status are stark. According to the recently published SA Demographic and Health Survey, approximately 78% of White women in SA have had at least one Pap smear (to screen for cervical cancer and precancer) compared to just 32% of Black women. Not surprisingly, Black women in SA are also more likely to be diagnosed with cervical cancer. In 2014 the cervical cancer age standardized incidence rate (ASIR) in SA was about 27 per 100,000 Black women compared to 10 per 100,000 Asian women (the group with the lowest ASIR).
The UNC-Wits-Right to Care team is working to reduce disparities in cervical cancer morbidity and mortality by providing free Pap smears and precancer treatment to thousands of women in SA. I’ve joined an amazing team of clinicians and researchers who have been extremely generous with their time and expertise as I get up to speed (and ask a million questions). Over the last few weeks I have been shadowing in clinic to better understand how the program operates and how clinicians educate and counsel patients. My main project this summer will be creating and updating patient communication materials to raise awareness and convey key educational messages about cervical cancer prevention with the goal of improving Pap smear screening coverage in program sites.
In addition to my time in the clinic, I’ve also been exploring Johannesburg and continuing to learn about SA’s history. This country provides a vivid example of the way that social factors, particularly historical and contemporary patterns of oppression, impact population health. While I’ve been doing a lot of reading, the opportunity to live and work in this city is a daily reminder that reality is much more complex than can be captured in journal articles. When I’m feeling guilty about spending time at one of Johannesburg’s downtown markets instead of working on my master’s paper (which I am also planning to write while I am here), I remind myself that closing the data visualizer, leaving the office, and taking time to learn first-hand about the community with which I’m working is also a critical part of public health practice.
I feel very lucky to be a part of a team that is doing such important work here in Johannesburg. Stay tuned for more journal articles, statistics, and photos in my next update. (To tide you over, here’s bonus reading: while cervical cancer is much less common in the United States compared to SA, disparities by race persist.)