LONDON – A cheap method to detect cervical cancer using vinegar, cotton gauze and a bright light could save millions of women in the developing world, experts reported today.
The study, published in The Lancet medical journal, found a simple visual screening test to look for the early signs of cervical cancer reduced the numbers of cases by a quarter.
“This is a landmark study,” said Dr. Harshad Sanghvi, medical director at JHPIEGO, an international health organization affiliated with Johns Hopkins University that has worked on preventing cervical cancer in poor countries. Sanghvi was not connected to The Lancet study.
Cervical cancer is largely preventable. It causes about 250,000 deaths every year and is the second-most common cancer in women. Nearly 80 percent of those women are in the developing world.
The visual screening test is done by a nurse or trained health care worker who washes a woman’s cervix with vinegar and gauze. After one minute, any precancerous lesions turn very white and can be seen with the naked eye under a halogen lamp.
Researchers from the International Agency for Research on Cancer in France and their colleagues from Tamil Nadu in India used the technique to screen 49,311 women in Dindigul district, India, from 2000 to 2003. When precancerous lesions were found, health care workers gave immediate treatment to destroy the abnormal cervical tissue.
Another 30,958 women received standard care. They were told to watch for signs and symptoms of cervical cancer and encouraged to visit health care facilities where screening was available. These women were tracked from 2000 to 2006.
There were 167 cases and 83 cervical cancer deaths in the women who received the screening, compared with 158 cases and 92 deaths in those who didn’t. That represents 25 percent less cervical cancer and a 35 percent lower death rate among those screened.
Still, the test isn’t perfect. It can produce many false positives, so health care workers giving the test must be properly trained.