Vinegar Cancer Test: How Is A Simple Solution Reducing Cervical Cancer Deaths By A Third In India?

By iScienceTimes Staff on June 3, 2013 1:36 PM EDT

indian women
A 15-year study in India found that a simple vinegar test lowered cervical cancer death rates by 30%. (Photo: Flickr: mckaysavage)

A simple test involving vinegar and a lamp can be used for effective, low-cost cervical cancer screening, according to a 15-year study in India.

The study, which included 150,000 women, found that the vinegar test lowered cervical cancer death rates in Indian women by 30 percent. That is much lower than the Pap smear test, which has reduced cervical cancer deaths by 80 percent in the United States. Unlike a Pap smear, the vinegar test doesn't require expensive laboratories.

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"This is great news for developing countries, that you can use simple, inexpensive technology and prevent thousands of deaths," said Carol Aghajanian, the chief of gynecological medical oncology at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, who didn't participate in the study. "It's inexpensive, it's simple, and it allows for immediate action."

The vinegar screening test costs less than one dollar per test, while a Pap smear is about $15.

The study is the work of Surendra S. Shastri, head of preventative oncology at Tata Memorial Hospital in Mumbai, India. Almost two decades ago, Shastri began trying to figure out how to bring down the number of cervical cancer deaths. While the disease has become relatively rare in developed countries -- in the U.S., about 4,000 women a year die from cervical cancer -- in the developing world the number is 200,000.

"We don't have the kind of laboratories or the kind of trained manpower needed for having a Pap smear. The Pap smear has succeeded in the countries where it has because of good quality control and frequency of screening," said Shastri. 

So Shastri figured out a novel solution.

In testing for cervical cancer, doctors pour acetic acid -- vinegar, basically, though not the stuff you can just buy in a grocery store -- onto the cervix. Then they magnify it, looking for cancer and pre-cancer cells that temporarily turn white when exposed to the acid.

Shastri took the magnifier and the doctor out of the equation. He was able to train health care workers, who generally perform services like immunizations, to perform the cancer test. They swab the cervix with the acetic acid solution, and then using a bright light inspect the cervix.

The training only takes two weeks, and Shastri has used health care workers who only have a 10th-grade education.

The study's researchers estimate that the low-cost vinegar test could prevent 22,000 cervical cancer deaths each year in India, and as many as 72,600 deaths worldwide.

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