Haitian-American women have the highest incidence of cervical cancer in South Florida, said Erin Kobetz, Ph.D., MPH, an assistant professor of Epidemiology and Public Health at the University of Miami, Miller School of Medicine.
Kobetz and community leaders from Little Haiti created a campus-community partnership, Partners in Action, which targets cancer disparities in South Florida’s Haitian community.
Kobetz said, with routine Pap smears and timely follow-up for abnormalities, women could prevent nearly 100 percent of new cervical cancer.
“Haitian women are just not getting Pap smears and we have an obligation to address this disparity,” said Kobetz.
Community health workers administered surveys in community venues, such as laundromats and clinics, to get a clear sense of which women were not being screened.
Women 40-years and older were surveyed, Kobetz said. Research showed that only 44 percent of Haitian women surveyed received a Pap smear test in the last three years as recommended by national guidelines.
“Each finding revealed by our research leads us toward a new opportunity for even more research and discovery,” said Kobetz.
She said the research also showed that study participants had limited knowledge about cancer and the importance of early detection.
A Pap smear test is conducted by scraping cells from the surface of the cervix to find cell changes. According to Womens Health, cervical cancer occurs when cells on the cervix grow out of control.
Keblena Joseph, 19, a Haitian-American from Miami, said she never had a Pap smear test.
“I was never really informed about cervical cancer and I don’t know too much about Pap smear tests other than it being uncomfortable.”
The partnership is trying to combat Pap smear stigmas by offering women the opportunity to use the Fournier self-sampler, which allows women to screen themselves for cervical cancer in the privacy of their own homes.
Kobetz said, “There is a social concern for modesty in the Haitian community.” The self-sampler detects abnormalities much like the Pap smear test
Natasha Olivier, 28, said that the self-test is a good idea.
“The whole process of getting a Pap smear is awkward,” Olivier said. “I like the idea of being able to check my health in the comfort of my home.”
Kobetz said another contributing factor to far fewer Pap smears in the Haitian community is the notion of maladi mou, or the belief that illness can be given supernaturally.
“We want to work within the socio-cultural framework that Haitians consider when thinking about disease etiology and prevention,” Kobetz said, “We’re not trying to change it, we’re trying to work within it.”
Partners in Action has five research projects surrounding the disparity and mortality level of Haitians. The organization hopes to replicate its efforts in Haiti’s central plateau.
“Haiti has the highest rate for cervical cancer mortality in the world,” Kobetz said.
According to Kobetz, it takes a community approach to make research efforts with underserved population groups, like Haitians, successful. “Together we can make a difference,” Kobetz said.
“By approaching research in a nontraditional way, by giving equal value to academic and community knowledge, we can make real inroads to improving health disparities.”