Simple vinegar test for cervical cancer saves lives in India

A $1 vinegar screening can lower cervical cancer death rates, according to a 15-year study with 150,000 women. Globally, it could prevent 73,000 deaths a year.

A 15-year study with 150,000 women in India found that a cheap test -- requiring just a swab of vinegar -- cut the cervical cancer death rate by 31 percent.

Pap smears have reduced these deaths by 80 percent in the U.S. and other wealthier nations, but cervical cancer is still the second most common malignancy in less-developed regions. It’s not feasible to roll out widespread Pap testing if there isn’t sufficient healthcare infrastructure to support it, Wall Street Journal reports.

With this test -- called VIA, for visual inspection with acetic acid -- vinegar is applied to a cotton swab and brushed onto the cervix. After one minute, normal tissue stays the same color -- but cancerous tissue turns white. You only need a lamp to see it, Businessweek explains. (The sterilized vinegar used is made from combining acetic acid with water, so not quite household vinegar.)

Specialized lab equipment isn’t necessary, making it accessible and cheap (less than $1 per patient). And the results are immediate, particularly important if women must travel far for medical care. Pap smears require microscope work and follow-ups and cost $15.

In this study led by Surendra Shastri from the Tata Memorial Center in Mumbai, 75,000 women received VIA, while 76,000 received no screening -- the current standard of care in India, the researchers added.

About 16 percent of patients who weren’t screened died from cervical cancer -- compared with 11 percent of patients in the vinegar group. With screening, precancerous lesions could be removed and existing cancers were caught at earlier stages.

Widespread implementation, researchers estimate, could prevent 22,000 cervical-cancer deaths every year in India, and nearly 73,000 deaths in resource-poor countries around the world.

Local women with at least a 10th-grade education and “good communication skills” were trained for four weeks (with a refresher each year) to do the test, Washington Post reports.

The study [pdf] was presented at the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s annual meeting in Chicago this week.

[ASCO via WSJ, Businessweek, Washington Post]

Image: W. Oelen via Wikimedia

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