Cervical cancer is a disease that Haiti cannot afford. And in most cases, it’s a disease the country’s broken healthcare system cannot treat.

There is just one MRI scanner in the entire country of 11 million people. Radiation treatment does not exist — for any kind of cancer — because there are no machines. Cancer screenings and early detection programs are limited, and so is access to lifesaving care.

In a country already struggling to manage maternal deaths and childhood diseases that have been largely controlled in other parts of the world, cervical cancer is nearly always a death sentence. Haitians who can afford to travel abroad for treatment are the few who have a fighting chance against advanced forms of the disease.

But cancer experts say it doesn’t have to be that way. Though cervical cancer is one of the leading causes of cancer deaths for women in Haiti, it is both preventable and treatable.

Estimates of the number of deaths caused by cervical cancer in Haiti vary widely, in part because people often die with no record of the cause. But healthcare providers in Haiti such as Partners in Health, a Boston-based nonprofit, put the number at 1,500 or more a year, basing their estimates on 10 years of data. The International Agency for Research on Cancer, the World Health Organization’s cancer arm, is far more conservative, saying an estimated 563 women will die from the disease in Haiti this year.

Even at the lower number, the mortality rate in Haiti is six times that of the United States.

Most of those deaths, researchers say, can be linked to poverty. In a country like Haiti, where most people live on less than $2 a day and many poor women often work as street vendors to keep families afloat, the deaths also have a ripple effect, sending more children to orphanages and accelerating the downward spiral of the already poor.

“These are unnecessary deaths that have great impact on individual families and the economy of our country,” said Didi Bertrand-Farmer, a Haitian healthcare advocate who is emerging as a leading voice in a campaign to reverse the deadly trend. Continue reading

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