Doctors and health care organizations are working on new strategies to prevent Latin women from developing and dying from cervical cancer.

Latinas are twice as likely to contract the disease as Caucasian women because they don’t get regular pap smears.

Experts say the reasons Latinas do not get regular pap smears vary from lack of awareness and lack of health care to a fear of being stigmatized.

Cervical cancer is caused by certain strains of the human papillomavirus, a common sexually transmitted infection. According to the Center for Disease Control, 90 percent of the time HPV clears up on its own, but in 10 percent of cases the person develops either cancer or genital warts.

“I grew up Catholic and my parents’ belief was you don’t have sex until you’re married, so you don’t need to go to the gynecologist because you’re clean,” said Susie Carillo, a Los Angeles resident, who was diagnosed with cervical cancer when she was 23.

Carillo, now 32, recently became a volunteer with the National Cervical Cancer Coalition, agreeing to share her story as part of a national campaign to get women talking about the disease.

“I really haven’t met many Latino women with the disease,” she says. “I’ve met many women of different races, but I know there are more Latino women out there. I wish our community was more open about this subject.”

Carillo was lucky that her cancer was caught early during a prenatal exam when she was pregnant with her daughter. Because there are few symptoms related to the disease, it is often not caught in Latino women until it is advanced.

Regular screening in the form of pap smears helps catch the disease while it can still be treated. But many Hispanic women get their health care at low-income clinics where the staff is often overwhelmed, said Alejandra Casillas, a physician with the California Medical Association (CMA) who works at the Venice Family Clinic in southern California.

“Some clinics may not have a good reminder system for ensuring that patients come back for regular exams,” she said.

The CMA recently launched a campaign that includes giving providers a toolkit to improve communication with their patients. The campaign will also try to increase public awareness of the HPV vaccine, which came on the market five years ago and can help prevent women from contracting the strains of HPV that cause cancer.

The CDC recommends that girls receive the vaccine between the ages of 9 and 11.

Some studies have shown that Hispanic parents are receptive to the vaccine when a health care provider recommends it.

Another organization involved in the fight to lower the rate of cervical cancer in Latino women is Cervical Cancer-Free America. The group, based in North Carolina, recently teamed up with the United Way so that when low-income women call the United Way’s 211 number for help accessing community services, they learn where they can get cervical cancer screening.

Employing such innovative strategies is what it will take to eradicate the disease said Jennifer Smith, an epidemiologist and director of Cervical Cancer-Free America. “It’s an ambitious goal,” she said. “But it’s imminently achievable. Women in this country, no matter what their ethnicity, shouldn’t be dying of cervical cancer.”

Nancy Averett is a freelance writer based in Cincinnati, Ohio. She can be reached at

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