The World Health Organization (WHO) honored Henrietta Lacks, recognizing the revolutionary legacy of a black woman whose cancer cells were the basis for life-changing medical breakthroughs, but were taken without her knowledge or without his consent.
Researchers took tissue from Lacks’ body when she sought treatment for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore in the 1950s, establishing the so-called HeLa cells that became the first “Immortal line” of human cells to divide indefinitely in the laboratory.
Recognizing Henrietta Lacks, the WHO said it wanted to remedy a “historical wrong”, noting that the global scientific community had once concealed her ethnicity and true history.
“WHO recognizes the importance of addressing past scientific injustices and advancing racial equity in health and science,” said Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “It is also an opportunity to recognize women – especially women of color – who have made incredible but often invisible contributions to medical science.”
Lacks died of cervical cancer at the age of 31 in October 1951 and her eldest son, Lawrence Lacks, 87, received the WHO award at its headquarters in Geneva. He was accompanied by several of his grandchildren, great grandchildren and other members of his family.
“We are moved to receive this historic recognition from my mother, Henrietta Lacks – honoring who she was as a remarkable woman and the lasting impact of her HeLa cells. My mother’s once-hidden contributions are now rightly honored for their global impact, ”Lacks said.
“My mother was a pioneer in life, giving back to her community, helping others live better lives and caring for others. In death, she continues to help the world. Her legacy lives on in us and we thank you for saying her name – Henrietta Lacks. “
Tedros noted that black people like Henrietta Lacks suffered from racial discrimination in health care, and the problem stayed in many parts of the world today.
“Henrietta Lacks was exploited. She is one of many women of color whose bodies have been misused by science, ”he said. “She trusted the health system to be able to seek treatment. But the system took something from him without his knowledge or consent.
The WHO chief said women of color continued to be disproportionately affected by cervical cancer and the COVID-19 pandemic had highlighted persistent health inequalities affecting marginalized communities around the world. Studies in various countries show that black women die of cervical cancer at a rate several times that of white women, while 19 of the 20 countries most affected by cervical cancer are in Africa, he said.
The HPV vaccine, which protects against a range of cancers, including cervical cancer, is now routinely given to many girls around the world and there is hope that the disease can be eliminated.
However, the WHO reports that as of 2020, less than 25 percent of low-income countries and less than 30 percent of lower-middle-income countries had access to the HPV vaccine as part of their programs. national immunization programs, compared to more than 85 percent of high-income countries.
“It is unacceptable that access to the life-saving HPV vaccine can be determined by your race, ethnicity or place of birth,” said Dr Princess Nothemba (Nono) Simelela, Tedros special advisor.
“The HPV vaccine was developed using cells from Henrietta Lacks. Although the cells were taken without her consent and without her knowledge, she left a legacy that could potentially save millions of lives. We owe her and her family fair access to this revolutionary vaccine. “
Lacks, who lived near Baltimore with her husband and five children, traveled to Johns Hopkins after suffering severe vaginal bleeding, where she was diagnosed with cervical cancer.
The HeLa cell line was developed from her tumor and the cells were mass produced, for profit, without recognition to her family who only found out they had been used for science in the 1970s. Her life and legacy were documented in the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, which was later adapted for film.
Earlier this month, the Lacks estate filed a lawsuit against a pharmaceutical company that had used the HeLa cell line. The action said the company had made a “conscious choice” to mass produce the cells and take advantage of a “racially unjust medical system,” Reuters news agency reported.
More than 50,000,000 metric tons of HeLa cells have been distributed worldwide since they were collected from Lacks, according to the WHO.
Besides HPV, the cell line has played a crucial role in the development of polio vaccine and drugs for HIV / AIDS, hemophilia, leukemia and Parkinson’s disease. It has also led to advances in reproductive health, including in vitro fertilization, and has been used in thousands of studies, including for COVID-19.
“The fight to end cervical cancer is part of a larger struggle for human rights,” said Dr. Groesbeck Parham, who participated in the civil rights movement as a teenager in Alabama and is now a clinical expert for the WHO Cervical Cancer Elimination Initiative.
“Through her immortal cells, Mrs Henrietta Lacks speaks to us, also drawing our attention to the millions of young women and mothers in low-income countries who continue to die of cervical cancer because they cannot not access and afford the drugs, technologies and medical procedures that are readily available in high-income countries. The questions raised by the spirit and the legacy of Mrs. Henrietta Lacks are: “Why does this situation exist? “, ” What are the solutions ? And “When are you going to implement them?” “”