Henrietta Lacks Honored by the World Health Organization

In Summary

The honor from WHO comes over a decade since the book called “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” was published, which highlighted health care disparities among African Americans.

On Oct. 13, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus honored Henrietta Lacks, who was a Black woman who had her cancer cells taken without her knowledge during the 1950s, according to the Associated Press. Her cells would create the groundwork of many scientific advancements, such as research of the COVID-19 virus. 

RELATED: Doctor Susan Moore, An African American Physician, Chronicles the Racist Medical Care that Led to Her Death

Seventy years ago, Lacks passed away from cervical cancer when she was 31 years old at the Johns Hopkins Hospital. Afterwards, her cells were taken from her and were the first human cells to be reproduced.  

“What happened to Henritta was wrong,” Ghebreyesus said at a special ceremony honoring Lacks and her family. 

The cells were named the HeLa cells after her name and became the bedrock of modern medicine, used in the creation of the polio and COVID-19 vaccines, according to the Associated Press. Although these were great breakthroughs, it came at a time when Lacks faced racial discrimination and was never acknowledged for the role she played. 

RELATED: The African American Wellness Project Partners with VNR1 Communications in PSA Campaign to Combat Health Disparities in the African American Community

“Henrietta Lacks was exploited. She is one of many women of color whose bodies has been misused by science,” Ghebreyesus said. “She placed her trust in the health system so she could receive treatment, but the system took something from her without her knowledge or consent.” 

On Oct. 4, her family sued Thermo Fisher Scientific, a U.S. biotechnology company, citing nonconsensual use of Lacks’ cells, according to ABC News

RELATED: Henrietta Lacks Estate Files Lawsuit, Wall Street Sees Profits and Diversity in Accounting

“We are firm that in medicine and in science, Black Lives Matter. Henrietta Lacks’ life mattered and still matters,” said Ghebreyesus. 

The WHO chief said this is an opportunity to honor women of color for their contributions to science. 

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