Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director General, announced they have honored the late Henrietta Lacks with the World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General’s award, recognizing the world-changing legacy of this Black American woman who died of cervical cancer, 70 years ago, on October 4, 1951.
While she sought treatment, researchers took biopsies from Mrs Lacks’ body without her knowledge or consent. Her cells became the first “immortal” cell line, and have allowed for incalculable scientific breakthroughs such as the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, the polio vaccine, drugs for HIV and cancers, and most recently, critical COVID-19 research.
Shockingly, the global scientific community once hid Henrietta Lacks’ race and her real story, a historic wrong that today’s recognition seeks to heal.
“In honoring Henrietta Lacks, WHO acknowledges the importance of reckoning with past scientific injustices, and advancing racial equity in health and science,” said Dr Tedros. “It’s also an opportunity to recognize women - particularly women of color - who have made incredible but often unseen contributions to medical science.”
The award was received at the WHO office in Geneva by Lawrence Lacks, Mrs. Lacks’ 87-year-old son. He is one of the last living relatives who personally knew her. Mr. Lacks was accompanied by several of Henrietta Lacks’ grandchildren, great-grand children, and other family members.
Today, women of color continue to be disproportionately affected by cervical cancer, and the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the many fault lines where health inequities persist among marginalized communities around the world. Studies in various countries consistently document that Black women are dying of cervical cancer at several times the rate of white women, while 19 of the 20 countries with the highest cervical cancer burdens are in Africa.
The family’s discussions with WHO especially focused on the Organization’s ambitious campaign to eliminate cervical cancer. The past year, which marked the 100th anniversary of Henrietta Lacks’ birth, coincides with the inaugural year of WHO’s Global strategy to accelerate the elimination of cervical cancer. This historic campaign marks the first time ever that all WHO Member States have collectively resolved to eliminate a cancer.
The family also joins WHO in advocating for equity in access to the HPV vaccine, which protects against a range of cancers, including cervical cancer. Despite having been prequalified by WHO over 12 years ago, supply constraints and high prices still prevent adequate doses from reaching girls in low-and-middle income countries.
As of 2020, less than 25% of low-income countries and less than 30% of lower-middle-income countries had access to the HPV vaccine through their national immunization programmes, compared with more than 85% of high-income countries.
As a young mother, Henrietta Lacks and her husband were raising five children near Baltimore when she fell ill. She went to Johns Hopkins after experiencing extensive vaginal bleeding and was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Despite treatment, it cut her life short on October 4, 1951. She was only 31 years old.
During treatment, researchers took samples of her tumor. That “HeLa” cell line became a scientific breakthrough: the first immortal line of human cells to divide indefinitely in a laboratory. The cells were mass produced, for profit, without recognition to her family. Over 50,000,000 metric tonnes of HeLa cells have been distributed around the world, the subjects of over 75,000 studies.
In addition to the HPV vaccine, HeLa cells allowed for development of the polio vaccine; drugs for HIV/AIDS, haemophilia, leukaemia, and Parkinson’s disease; breakthroughs in reproductive health, including in vitro fertilization; research on chromosomal conditions, cancer, gene mapping, and precision medicine; and are used in studies responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Though her life was cut short, Henrietta Lacks’ contributions to medicine have led to remarkable scientific breakthroughs, saving countless lives and bringing us closer to eliminating cervical cancer,” said Dr. Senait Fisseha, Co-Chair of the Director-General’s expert advisory group on cervical cancer elimination.