March 06, 2014
Most people think of malaria, AIDS and childbirth as leading causes of death for women in sub-Saharan Africa. But there's another killer: Cervical cancer. There is a simple test and technology that can save the lives of women in developing countries.
Every year, around the globe, half a million women develop cervical cancer and more than a quarter of a million die. The overwhelming majority of those deaths occur in developing countries.
In Burkina Faso, Adjaratou Kinda learned too late that she had cervical cancer.
"They said there is nothing else they can do for me here," said Kinda.
A simple, inexpensive test could have saved her life.
In developed countries, most women can be screened for cervical cancer with a non-invasive test at a doctor's office. If lab results show abnormal cells, they have options: cryotherapy - killing pre-cancerous cells by freezing the cervix, and, in more advanced cases, radiation or surgery.
In developing countries, women don't have these options.
As a result, in sub-Saharan Africa, women who are HIV positive are surviving AIDS, but dying of cervical cancer.
"In the pre-cancerous stage there are no symptoms. There’s no pain. There’s no bleeding. There’s no discharge," said Dr. John Varallo, who is with Jhpiego, a non-profit health organization. "The woman feels well. But that’s when she needs to be screened."
Jhpiego is helping establish programs in Burkina Faso and other countries so doctors, nurses and midwives can screen and treat pre-cancerous cells in one visit. A solution of simple table vinegar turns pre-cancerous cells white. During the same visit, cryotherapy kills them.
It takes 10 years or more for those cells to become cancerous. And yet cervical cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death among women worldwide.
"It’s projected that by 2030, 98 percent of those cases will be occurring in developing countries. And, it’s really unnecessary because cervical cancer is almost completely preventable," said Varallo.
The World Health Organization calls cervical cancer a leading public health concern, and now with an inexpensive test, more women can be screened and their lives saved.
"It’s relatively easy to learn, does not require anesthesia, does not require electricity and you put a probe on the cervix with compressed gas through a tank and you do, what we call, a double freeze technique," continued Varallo.
Varallo says the procedure is 95 percent effective. If screening and treatment can become more widespread, there will be no need for women like Adjaratou Kinda to learn that it's too late.