How can the story of Henrietta Lacks influence the way we think about global health and health promotion/disease prevention?
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot as well as telling the story of the HeLa cell line also reflects on how cultural assumptions and circumstances affect the quality of medical care.
In Skloot's book, the medical establishment is portrayed as well-educated and belonging to a generally white upper-middle class. The poor, rural black Lacks family is shown as receiving sub-par medical care due to not only poverty but lack of cultural capital and education. Henrietta's tumor was far advanced by the time when she received treatment, meaning that she was killed by a cancer that has a very high 5-year survival rate among wealthier and better educated women.
As wealthier countries attempt to fund or provide health care for developing countries, especially the global south, we can apply the lessons we find in Skloot's book. First, we can understand that cultural differences and low educational levels can be obstacles to treatment, both in terms of willingness of patients to access treatment and also to their compliance with care plans. Next, Lack's example shows that poverty makes access to health care logistically difficult especially for people in rural communities. This suggests on a global level that putting a sophisticated medical center in a large city may not actually help rural residents who lack access to transportation and communication. Finally, the combination of difficulty of access and lack of understanding, causing unwillingness to seek treatment, may allow epidemic diseases to spread in rural arras for long periods before they are identified and treated.
Thus the lesson for developed countries is that when helping developing nations it is necessary to create systems of community-based health care and focus as much on education and building trust in smaller communities as simply providing shiny new health care technology in major urban areas.