In the United States, cervical cancer is relatively rare: there are 13 cancers women are more likely to have. But In India, it’s still number one, taking 77,000 lives a year.
The reason for the disparity is access to early screenings. Most American women can afford pap smears; most Indian women can’t. But there is a much lower-cost solution: applying household vinegar to the cervix, and then checking it with a magnifying glass.
Believe it or not, that method is medically sound. In results just-released from a 15-year study of 150,000 women in the slums of Mumbai, it reduced cervical cancer deaths by 31%. As the Associated Press reports, the researchers say it could prevent 22,000 deaths a year in India, and 72,600 deaths in poor countries worldwide.
Experts called the outcome “amazing” and said this quick, cheap test could save tens of thousands of lives each year in developing countries by spotting early signs of cancer, allowing treatment before it’s too late.
Usha Devi, one of the women in the study, says it saved her life.
“Many women refused to get screened. Some of them died of cancer later,” Devi said. “Now I feel everyone should get tested. I got my life back because of these tests.”
The procedure has actually been around for a while, though it doesn’t appear to have been initially pioneered in the developing world. The Independent reported in 1993 that the Marie Stopes House used a vinegar test as a supplement to the pap smear; staff there called it “red carpet treatment for your cervix.”
But in the 1990s the combination of a vinegar test and immediate freezing off of precancerous spots was pioneered by American Dr. Paul Blumenthal and Indian Dr. Rengaswamy Sankaranarayanan, and it is now championed around the world.
The biggest barrier to effectiveness may be in implementing the screenings as effectively as the researchers led by Tata Memorial Hopsital’s Surendra Srinivas Shastri, who faced their own share of obstacles.
“We went to every single house in the neighborhood assigned to us introducing ourselves and asking them to come to our health talks. They used to come out of curiosity, listen to the talk but when we asked them to get screened they would totally refuse,” said one social worker, Vaishnavi Bhagat. “The women were both scared and shy.”
One woman who did agree to testing jumped up from the table when she was examined with a speculum. “She started screaming that we had stolen her kidney,” Bhagat said. Another health worker was beaten by people in the neighborhood when women realized they would have to disrobe to be screened.
Still, the stunning results–72,600 women saved a year!–came despite these anecdotes, and Dr. Shastri plans to expand the vinegar test’s use immediately. “We are already working with state and national health authorities in India to make this screening strategy available to women throughout the country,” he told ASCO Daily News.