Breast Cancer Screenings Animate U.S. but Remain Rare in Developing Countries


Breast Cancer Screenings Animate U.S. but Remain Rare in Developing Countries

November 19, 2009

A flurry of articles about new recommendations for breast cancer screenings in the United States has stirred much debate among American women and U.S. health professionals.

The new recommendations, released by an influential group of doctors, insurance companies and policy makers, state that women should now begin regular breast cancer screenings at age 50, not 40, except for women with unusual risk factors for breast cancer. The new recommendations also state that women ages 50 to 74 should have mammograms less frequently—every two years, rather than every year—and that doctors should no longer be teaching women to examine their breasts on a regular basis.

As the debate continues to animate the U.S. media and raise questions about the vulnerability of women's health policies, such a conversation would garner little public attention in the developing world where women have little or no access to information about women's health issues at all. Even the most modest gains in women's health in developing countries are often threatened by war, economic instability, the HIV/AIDS pandemic and gender-based discrimination. Without basic health care, family planning and obstetric services, screenings and treatment for breast cancer remain a distant promise. And yet, there is a growing amount of grassroots work being done to change this.

Bringing Women's Health Out of the Shadows

Sahayog, a volunteer-based organization in India, works with rural communities on women's health issues including reproductive health rights, women's empowerment and youth leadership. Founded in 1992, the organization works with men and youth to promote gender equality, end violence against women and educate youth on sexual and reproductive health. AJWS supports Sahayog's project "Women's Voices for Maternal Health," to build the capacity of grassroots women's organizations to monitor the quality of local maternal health services.

During Liberia's civil war of 1990-2003, Imani House, Inc. (IHI)—an AJWS-supported organization in Liberia led by Liberians and Liberian-Americans—ran community clinics to prevent and treat cholera, wounds and starvation-related illnesses. These clinics continue to operate to provide basic health care including immunizations, malaria treatment, obstetric and gynecological care and STI testing to 15,000 women and children in Brewerville, Liberia, where the post-conflict government has limited capacity to meet the needs of the local population.

Until health care becomes a universal right rather than a privilege and until gender-based violence is more fiercely and sustainably addressed, the possibilities for women in developing countries to be screened for breast cancer and other health issues remain few and far between. Only with sustained efforts of grassroots organizations like Sahayog and Imani House is real change possible.