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Grant will help Hispanic women get Pap smears

Hispanic women have higher rates of invasive cervical cancer (16.2 per 100,000) than any other group except Vietnamese, according to the Baylor College of Medicine's Intercultural Cancer Council. The ICC also says cervical cancer in Mexican-American and Puerto Rican women is two to three times higher than it is in non-Hispanic Caucasian women and that the risk and mortality of cervical cancer is higher among Latinas than Caucasian women. (More information can be found at http://iccnetwork.org/cancerfacts/cfs4.htm.)

Dr. Hugo Vilchis, director of New Mexico State University's Border Epidemiology and Environmental Health Center. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

Many factors have been blamed for Hispanic women not getting Pap smears. Poverty, a lack of access to health care, lack of insurance and ignorance of the importance of cervical checkups are perhaps the most common reasons. But Hugo Vilchis, director of New Mexico State University's Border Epidemiology and Environmental Health Center, says the significant role of culture is often overlooked.

"In the Latin American culture, it's important for women in particular to have company with them when they go to the doctors," Vilchis said. "Family or extended family support is very important. But some women may have nobody to accompany them, so they won't go to the doctor."

Vilchis hopes to change this, thanks to a National Cancer Institute grant that was given to NMSU at the end of September. The five-year award will help pay for several cancer research projects, one of them headed by Vilchis.

In his project, promotoras (health care providers) will teach Hispanic women from border communities why Pap smears are important, empower them to receive Pap testing, and assist women with abnormal results in follow-up tests. La Clinica de Familia, Ben Archer Health Center and the Luna County Healthy Start Program will participate in this study. One of them will be chosen as the implementation site and that clinic's promotoras will work directly with the Hispanic women. After about a year and a half of studies, this clinic's results will be compared to the findings in the other two clinics, representing the control group. Vilchis wants to know how the training of promotoras and their subsequent training of the women can help boost the percentage of women getting Pap smears and follow-up of abnormal results which would drop the percentage of women getting cervical cancer.

"We will teach between six and eight promotoras basic information about Pap smears," Vilchis said. "We will prepare materials for them that they can use to teach Hispanic women between 21 and 65 years old about the importance of getting Pap smears. And the promotoras will play the role of extended family member, helping the women get to their doctors.

"If we find more abnormal Pap smears than we expect, then we will immediately write a grant to resolve that issue. Ethically, it's not appropriate for me to wait with my arms crossed to see what happens to these patients. We will take quick action."

As New Mexico State University continues to fulfill its multi-pronged land-grant mission of teaching, research, service and outreach, Vilchis says the promotora project helps address several of these obligations.

"Having this grant puts New Mexico State University in the first division of research," he said. "We will be working directly with people who are the world's top cancer researchers. This will increase our visibility nationally and internationally as cancer researchers and open the door for others to be involved with researchers of a higher caliber.

"Also, this grant helps NMSU in the community. It will help us know why some of our women are not getting screened. Pap smears are an inexpensive, non-aggressive procedure. If a woman gets her Pap smear regularly, she will have a 95 to 98 percent of survival if cancer is found. If we convince our women to visit their doctors regularly for their Pap smears, no one in this area will die of cervical cancer."