How the HPV Vaccine Fails Black Women

by Evette Dionne

As I slid off the examination table after my annual pap smear, my gynecologist said the same thing he always did: “All looks good down there, Evette. No news is good news.” His words never failed to reassure me. I’d never received the dreaded phone call telling me I had a gynecological issue, and a part of me thought that’s how it always would be.

It turned out I was wrong.

The doctor called five days later. Immediately, my heart and mind began racing. It couldn’t be pregnancy; I’ve always used precautions to prevent an unexpected visitor in the womb. It couldn’t be an STD; condoms were supposed to protect me from that — or so I thought.

In a solemn tone, my gynecologist told me my pap smear was abnormal due to the appearance of low-grade HPV. My heart leaped in my throat. Sensing my nervousness, he attempted to calm me. “Don’t panic,” he said. “Let’s schedule additional testing. We’ll check your cervix to insure the HPV is low-grade, and we’ll move forward from there.”

It’s upsetting to me that Gardasil leaves many black women without adequate protection against HPV and cervical cancer. Conflating the healthcare needs of white women with those of black women keeps us from accessing adequate treatment in multiple areas, and this especially troubling when it comes to HPV. Had there been funding for a vaccine specifically designed for my black, female body, a shot that protects my body as well as it does white women, I might very well be HPV-free today.

I’d gone numb at the news. I had HPV. The human papillomavirus.

Flashbacks ensued. I remembered one particular night with my very first sexual partner, five years before. We forewent condoms, at his request. That had to be the night he transmitted HPV to me.

I remembered how abnormal cells had appeared long before the HPV materialized. Almost two months after I’d engaged with my first sexual partner, my former gynecologist administered a pap smear. It returned abnormal, but she told me that it wasn’t cause for panic. The abnormal cells appeared to be laden with HPV, but they hadn’t fully formed. To prevent the cells from forming, the gynecologist recommended Gardasil as a solution. Over the course of nine months, I’d receive three shots. The gynecologist expected the Gardasil to prevent the HPV from forming.

Her words were meant to reassure me, but I felt overwhelmingly saddened. My partner and I had been tested for sexually transmitted diseases before we’d ever had unprotected sex. I’d started using birth control. My womb and my health were supposed to be safe, even as we engaged in condomless sex. I felt like a fool.

I endured the three painful shots — and thought it was a form of punishment for not using condoms — never knowing that Gardasil may not have been the correct option for me.

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