The human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine that has cut teen girls’ risk of cancer in half is less likely to shield African American women, according to new research unveiled Monday. Black women, who have higher rates of cervical cancer than the general population, are susceptible to different strains of HPV than the most common types for white women. Unfortunately, the only approved HPV vaccines in the US target the strains that most affect white women, leaving black women more or less unprotected.
Cancer epidemiologists at Duke University School of Medicine found that black and white women with precancerous cervical abnormalities contracted almost completely different types of HPV. This major divergence, researchers said, highlights how lack of ethnic diversity in clinical trials can skew new treatments and therapies. Senior author Catherine Hoyo explained that the two trials for the vaccines Gardasil and Cervarix failed to include “enough people of African descent,” adding, “We may be rethinking the vaccine itself.”
The HPV vaccine is hardly the only medical breakthrough that failed to account for racial differences. Even though the Food and Drug Administration has mandated proportional representation of minorities in clinical research, minorities are still drastically undercounted. One recent report found that many clinical trials exclude non-white subjects; the Hepatitis C vaccine trial, for instance, was 83 percent white, 14 percent African American, 2 percent Asian, and 2 percent other. Latinos, who comprise 16 percent of the total U.S. population, account for just 1 percent of clinical trial participants.
Meanwhile, diseases known to predominantly affect African Americans, such as sickle cell anemia, tend to receive less funding for research.
These subtle racial blind spots in medicine may help explain why minorities are more likely to contract chronic illnesses and have much higher fatality rates than white counterparts. African Americans and Latinos also tend to have poorer access to health care, insurance, and emergency services. Research also suggests that doctors and other health care providers unconsciously prefer white patients, spending less time with and offering fewer treatment options for black patients.