Honor Black History Month by supporting lifesaving women’s health research

Every year, February marks Black History Month, a time to honor the lives, sacrifices and contributions to this nation made by Black people. This year, the theme is Black Health and Wellness, which makes it an especially appropriate time to talk about a critical, ongoing health disparity that affects the well-being of so many Black women — uterine fibroids — and how it can be addressed through swift passage of the Stephanie Tubbs Jones Uterine Fibroid Research and Education Act (H.R. 2007).  

Uterine fibroids, noncancerous smooth muscle tumors that grow in the uterus, affect about 26 million American women between the ages of 15 and 50. Although some women never experience any adverse symptoms, others experience severe pelvic pain, abnormally heavy or severe menstrual bleeding, frequent urination, fatigue, bladder or bowel dysfunction, impaired fertility, pregnancy complications and loss, and anemia. This latter condition may itself cause lethargy, weakness, lightheadedness/dizziness, heart palpitations, and brittle hair or hair loss, among other symptoms. 

Fibroids, which are difficult to diagnose and treat, don’t affect women equally either. Black women are at higher risk of fibroids than white women and are more likely to undergo invasive treatments, often negatively affecting fertility. Further, Black women are diagnosed with fibroids about three times as often as white women, develop fibroids at younger ages, tend to have more serious symptoms and are about twice as likely to undergo hysterectomies as a form of treatment — often in their prime childbearing years. 

While almost a quarter of Black women between the ages of 18 and 30 have fibroids, just 6 percent of white women in the same age range do. By the time women reach 35, that number jumps to 60 percent, according to a recent article in MHealth Lab, a publication of the University of Michigan. To make matters worse, Black women are more likely to experience recurring fibroids or complications from the condition. Treatment of fibroids costs the healthcare system anywhere from almost $6 billion to $34 billion every year. 

Women with fibroids also had more risk factors for cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death for all American women, an important fact during heart disease awareness month. Yet, here too, Black women suffer worse outcomes as they are at higher risk of dying from heart disease, and at a younger age than white women. 

While it’s not entirely clear why Black women are so disproportionately affected by uterine fibroids, some possible risk factors may include an earlier onset of menstruation, obesity, stress and lower levels of vitamin D. If we are to better care for the millions of women who develop fibroids, and if we are to ameliorate the disparities of this condition, we need to better understand why the disparity exists. We need more research to understand these tumors better. Research into uterine fibroids has been overlooked and underfunded for too long. We also need more consistent education to ensure that women will be appropriately diagnosed and receive the right treatment they need. 

This is where H.R. 2007 comes in. The bill is named in honor of the original Member of Congress who introduced the legislation 20 years ago, the late congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D) of Ohio. She was a champion on women’s health issues during her tenure in Congress. 

This legislation would play a critical role in improving the quality of women’s lives by providing $150 million over five years through the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for research, expanding a Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services database on chronic conditions to include information about fibroids, creating a public education campaign through the Centers for Disease Control and directing the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) to create and share information about fibroids to healthcare providers. 

Our elected leaders in Congress must pass this legislation now, during Black History month, in order to help our healthcare community better understand, diagnose and treat fibroids. This bill will go a long way toward mitigating the health care inequities that too many Black women who are diagnosed with fibroids experience daily. Time for action is past due for Congress to address these challenges and intervene in a way that helps millions of women. 

Martha Nolan is a senior policy advisor for HealthyWomen.  

Tags gynecological surgery Hysterectomy menstruation Women's health

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