Household Vinegar: A Simple Solution to Cervical Cancer Screening

Household Vinegar: A Simple Solution to Cervical Cancer Screening

A tray of supplies, including household vinegar, used for screening patients. Masufu Hospital, Uganda. {Photo credit: M. Miller/MSH.}Photo credit: M. Miller/MSH.

Using a basic household item like vinegar to screen for a deadly disease is one of those "Aha!" solutions that will save lives. I had never imagined that I’d get to see the procedure in action.

Cervical cancer kills some 250,000 women every year -- over 80 percent from low-income countries, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Early diagnosis can save lives, but many health facilities in developing countries struggle to find a way to screen women in remote, overcrowded settings. Last year, The New York Times talked about the success of using vinegar as a cervical cancer diagnostic method in Thailand, and yesterday SHOTS, NPR's health blog documented its life-saving use in Botswana.

When I visited Masafu Hospital in eastern Uganda this year, Judith Tekka, a nurse, had just returned the day before from a training facilitated by USAID’s Strengthening TB and AIDS Response – Eastern Region (STAR-E) --- a project that is being implemented in eastern Uganda by Management Sciences for Health --- on how to properly counsel and screen for cervical cancer and precancer.

“We are excited, because we know we were missing people,” Judith said. Previously, she could only refer clients to Mbale (over 50km away) for screenings, but now she can offer the service herself.

The procedure, developed by Johns Hopkins University, is simple, low cost, sustainable and easy to scale up quickly. The health care worker brushes a cotton swab soaked in vinegar on the woman’s cervix. Any precancerous or cancerous spots will immediately turn white. The whole procedure takes less than five minutes.

"Christine", a 41-year-old, HIV positive woman with seven children, came to Masafu for her regular antiretroviral therapy appointment. Now that the hospital can offer cervical cancer screenings, the health workers referred her to the maternity room (next door) to be screened. (HIV doubles a woman's risk of getting cervical cancer and increases the speed of progression.)

Judith counseled Christine and explained the free procedure she was going to perform. Christine never delivered a child in a hospital and had never had a gynecological exam, so she was nervous. Judith, however, was trained on how to calm patients and sensitize them to using the services. She swiped the vinegar on Christine’s cervix and, within seconds, told Christine the screen was negative.

“It is a great relief to know I am ok,” said Christine.

Early detection is essential to treating cervical cancer, and this simple solution empowers health workers in low- and middle-income countries to do just that.

Funded by USAID, STAR-E expands HIV & AIDS prevention, care and treatment activities in eastern Uganda through a family-centered approach, which involves the facility, community and family in delivering care and treatment services to AIDS patients.

Margaret Hartley Miller, knowledge exchange specialist at MSH, was awarded the Gadue-Niebling-Urdaneta (GNU) Memorial Fellowship. She traveled to Uganda for four weeks, visiting local health centers and NGOs to meet with organizations MSH serves.