GENEVA, Switzerland – World Health Organization (WHO) director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Sunday appointed the Lacks family as WHO Goodwill ambassadors for Cervical Cancer Elimination. The appointment recognizes their efforts to champion cervical cancer prevention and to preserve the memory of Henrietta Lacks, who died from cervical cancer in 1951.
Henrietta Lacks’ story is one of injustice, with the vast contribution she made to science hidden from the world for many years. While she sought treatment for her cancer, researchers took biopsies from her body without her knowledge or consent. The cells they took, known as HeLa cells, subsequently became the first “immortal” cell line – meaning they are the only cells which have continued to live outside the human body and replicate.
Since the procedure was undertaken, these HeLa cells have contributed to countless medical breakthroughs, including the development of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, as well as COVID-19 research.
“Much like the injustice of Henrietta Lacks’ story, women all over the world from racial and minority ethnic groups face disproportionately higher risks from cervical cancer,” said Dr Tedros. “WHO’s goal is to eliminate cervical cancer, which means the innovations created with Henrietta Lacks’ cells must be made available equitably to all women and girls. We look forward to working with the Lacks family to raise awareness on cervical cancer and advance racial equity in health and science.”
The family, represented by Henrietta Lacks’ son Lawrence Lacks, Sr., and his granddaughters, Victoria Baptiste and Veronica Robinson; and Alfred Lacks Carter, Jr., Henrietta Lacks’ grandson, accepted the appointment at the World Health Summit in Berlin, during a session titled, “A Next Era for Women’s Cancer Control.”
On behalf of the Lacks family, Alfred Lacks Carter, Jr. said:
“Today, I humbly accept this honour to serve as a WHO Goodwill ambassador for Cervical Cancer Elimination in the spirit of my mother – Deborah Lacks, who lost her mother, Henrietta, to Cervical Cancer, and worked to make certain the world recognizes her impact. Our Hennie’s legacy lives on in us, and we will continue to stand in solidarity with WHO, patients, survivors, and families around the world to ensure that no other wife, mother, or sister dies needlessly from cervical cancer.”
The appointment of the Lacks family as WHO Goodwill ambassadors for Cervical Cancer Elimination adds momentum to the global strategy to eliminate cervical cancer, launched by WHO in 2020. The global effort represents the first time ever that WHO Member States have collectively committed to eliminate a cancer.
The strategy lists three goals that countries should reach by the year 2030: First, 90 percent of eligible girls should be fully vaccinated with the HPV vaccine. Second, 70 percent of women should be screened using a high-performance test. And third, 90 percent of women with pre-cancer should have access to treatment and 90 percent of women with invasive cancer should be managed appropriately, including access to palliative care.
Currently, a woman dies of cervical cancer every two minutes. Nearly 90 percent of these deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries due to inadequate access to cancer prevention, diagnosis and care. In all geographies, women in marginalized communities are disproportionately affected.
The Lacks family joins other ambassadors from WHO, including Ivorian footballer Didier Drogba, Brazilian world champion footballer Alisson Becker, Michael Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg Philanthropies and three-term Mayor of the City of New York, Cynthia Germanotta, president of the Born This Way Foundation, and former UK prime minister Gordon Brown.
The ambassadorship follows the bestowment of a special posthumous award to Henrietta Lacks from the WHO Director-General, given to her family on her behalf in 2021. It reflects WHO’s ongoing commitment to the active participation of people affected by cervical cancer as central to the elimination effort.