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WHO Honours Black Woman Whose Stolen Cells Transformed Medical Research

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Tedros Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), honored Henrietta Lacks, a Black American lady, with a special award on Wednesday, October 15.

Henrietta Lacks, a Black mother of five dying of cervical cancer, sought treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore in 1951.

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When Lacks sought treatment for cervical cancer at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, researchers took a sample of cells from her body without her knowledge or consent, establishing the so-called HeLa cells, which became the first ‘immortal line’ of human cells to divide indefinitely in a laboratory.

The intrusive operation resulted in a game-changing discovery: the cells thrived and multiplied in the laboratory, which no human cells had ever done before.

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They were replicated billions of times, contributed to approximately 75,000 research, and helped pave the path for the HPV vaccination and medications used to help patients with leukemia, H.I.V., and AIDS, as well as the recent invention of Covid-19 vaccines, all without credit to her family.

The WHO said it sought to correct a “historic wrong” by recognizing Henrietta Lacks, noting that the global scientific community once concealed her ethnicity and true background.

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“The World Health Organization recognizes the necessity of confronting past scientific injustices and fostering racial equity in health and research,” stated Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
“It’s also an occasion to honor women – especially women of color – who have made significant but largely overlooked contributions to medical science.”

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Lacks died of cervical cancer on October 4, 1951, at the age of 31, and her eldest son, 87-year-old Lawrence Lacks, accepted the medal from the WHO at its headquarters in Geneva. Several of her grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and other family members accompanied him.

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