UN honors Henrietta Lacks, whose cells transform medical research around the world |

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UN honors Henrietta Lacks, whose cells transform medical research around the world |

‘Reckoning’ with injustice 

For Tedros, in honouring Mrs. Lacks, the UN agency “acknowledges the importance of reckoning with past scientific injustices and advancing racial equity in health and science.” 

Legacy 

He said the award was also “an opportunity to recognize women, particularly women of colour, who have made incredible but often unseen contributions to medical science.” 

Story Highlights

  • In 1951, while Ms. Lacks sought treatment, researchers took biopsies from her body without her knowledge or consent, and her cells became the first “immortal” cell line, now known as the “HeLa cells”.  

  • Shockingly, as WHO points out, the global scientific community once hid her race and her real story, a historical wrong that Wednesday’s recognition hopes to help redress. 

The award was received at the WHO office in Geneva by Lawrence Lacks, Ms. 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-grandchildren, and other family members. 

Mr. Lacks said the family was moved to receive this historic recognition, honouring “a remarkable woman and the lasting impact of her HeLa cells.”  “My mother’s contributions, once hidden, are now being rightfully honoured for their global impact,” he said.  

“My mother was a pioneer in life, giving back to her community, helping others live a better life 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.”   According to WHO, women of colour continue to be disproportionately affected by cervical cancer. The COVID-19 pandemic has also exposed the many health inequities that 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. Today, 19 of the 20 countries with the highest cervical cancer burdens are in Africa.  Cervical cancer strategy 

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. 

Her relatives have also joined WHO in advocating for equity in access to the HPV vaccine, which protects against a range of cancers, including cervical cancer.   The past year, which saw the 100th anniversary of Henrietta Lacks’ birth, also coincided with the launch of WHO’s Global strategy to accelerate the elimination of cervical cancer, an initiative Mrs. Lacks’ family has endorsed.