KET Legislative Coverage

Louisville Doctor Fights Cervical Cancer Around the Globe

by John Gregory | 07/28/14 2:55 PM

In 2005, Dr. Bob Hilgers founded the Kentucky Cervical Cancer Coalition to raise awareness about the disease and its impact on women in the commonwealth. The state has some of the highest incidence and mortality rates of cervical cancer in the country.

Seeing the connection between the disease and poverty, Hilgers went on to launch the Women's Global Cancer Alliance (WGCA) to help fight cervical cancer in developing nations around the world. The focus of much of the Louisville-based non-profit's work so far has been in Haiti.

Hilgers discussed his work with KET's Renee Shaw on this weekend's edition of Connections.

Haitians Face Significant Challenges
As a gynecologic oncologist, Hilgers says he visited Haiti for the first time in 2008 and learned that the Caribbean island nation has the highest rate of cervical cancer in the world. He explains that the disease is so prevalent there because 90 percent of women live in poverty. The country also lacks professional medical services, and Haitian women generally seek what rudimentary health care is available only after they discover something is wrong.

The 2010 earthquake that devastated the island has slowed Hilger's work there. He says the national health minister still works out of a make-shift office in a cargo container. But the WGCA has helped build two cervical cancer prevention clinics in the country, and is developing a network of women who can educate their friends and neighbors about cervical cancer prevention and treatment.

Fighting the Cancer with Limited Resources
Pap smears are the most common method for detecting cervical cancer. While those screenings are common in wealthy nations with extensive health care services, Hilgers says pap smears are rarely available to women in developing nations. He is excited about a new screening technique that uses simple household vinegar swabbed on to the vaginal walls. Within minutes, the vinegar turns any precancerous lesions white. If suspicious tissue is detected, a nurse or doctor can then use a super-cooled rod to freeze off the lesion. Hilgers says it's a quick, simple, and inexpensive process to help fight the cancer in countries lacking high-tech medical services.

Another key to preventing the disease is to vaccinate children for the human papillomavirus (HPV), a primary cause of cervical cancer. He encourages parents to inoculate both girls and boys between the ages of 9 and 12. The vaccine is not without controversy, though. Attempts to require it for Kentucky children have stalled in the state legislature in recent sessions.

Hilgers says more than 50 million people worldwide have received the vaccine and he's seen no evidence of serious long-term health complications. He calls the HPV innoculation the equivalent to the Salk-Sabin vaccine that helped eradicate polio.

A Mission of Service
Hilgers trained at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City before working in New Mexico and eventually landing in Kentucky. In addition to his frequent visits to Haiti and running the WGCA, Hilgers is also a professor emeritus at the University of Louisville School of Medicine, and remains active in cervical cancer prevention efforts in the commonwealth. He has a very simple explanation for why he's devoted to helping women around the world fight the disease.

"I don't consider myself a humanitarian, I consider myself a physician," Hilgers says. "I have a skill and I want something to do."

Watch the full Connections interview.