The World Health Organization last week paid a high tribute “recognizing the world-changing legacy” of a woman raised in Halifax County.

While Henrietta Lacks sought treatment, researchers — without consent — took biopsies from her body. 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, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, of the World Health Organization, said.

While the African American woman was born in Roanoke, she was raised in Halifax County. She died of cervical cancer on Oct. 4, 1951 at the age of 31.

The global scientific community once hid Lacks’ race and her real story, a historic wrong that last week’s recognition sought 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 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, Henrietta Lacks’ 87-year-old son. He is one of the last living relatives who personally knew her.

He was accompanied by several of Henrietta Lacks’ grandchildren, great-grandchildren and other family members.

“We are moved to receive this historic recognition of my mother, Henrietta Lacks — honoring who she was as a remarkable woman and the lasting impact of her HeLa cells,” Lawrence Lacks 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.”

Iconic story

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 leaders especially focused on the oganization’s 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 programs, compared with more than 85% of high-income countries.

Lacks’ contribution

As a young mother, Henrietta Lacks and her husband were raising five children near Baltimore, Maryland, 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 in 1951.

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 million metric tons of HeLa cells have been distributed around the world, the subjects of more than 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.

Following the presentation of the award, the family and WHO will proceed to the shores of Lake Geneva, to watch the city’s iconic Jet d’Eau illuminate in the color teal — the color for cervical cancer awareness — in honor of Henrietta Lacks’ legacy and in appreciation of the family’s support for the global campaign to eliminate the disease. It is the first of several world monuments that will illuminate in teal between now and Nov. 17, marking the first anniversary of the launch of the global elimination campaign.