Today’s blog on global cancer is brought to you by Charles Wanga and Kate Austin of Jhpiego, a LIVESTRONG Foundation commitment-maker working tirelessly to combat cervical cancer around the world, and to correct the imbalance among acute and chronic diseases – both of which are of great risk to many people in developing countries. Be sure to tune in to PRI’s The World broadcast this evening for a story about this leading cause of global deaths among women and its fighters.
Like most women in Tanzania, Julietha Makyala did not know much about cervical cancer. The 37-year-old works long hours as a vegetable seller at the local market and the furthest thing from her mind was the possibility that she was walking around with a silent and potentially fatal disease. Still, when Julietha heard that her local hospital was offering free screening services for cervical cancer, something inside prompted her to go.
When she arrived, she was surprised to see a packed registration area. This was no typical day. It was the launch of an innovative, low-cost intervention to address a silent—but preventable—killer of over 270,000 women per year worldwide.
Cervical cancer is a slowly progressing disease, taking up to 15 years to develop from the initial infection with the human papillomavirus—the cause of almost all cervical cancer cases—to abnormal changes in the cells on the cervix. Although Pap tests are routinely used in developed countries to screen women, they require cytotechnicians, physicians, laboratories and reliable infrastructure that are typically unavailable in most of the developing world, including Tanzania.
This lack of access to preventive screening means that most women discover they have cervical cancer only by experiencing symptoms, when the disease has reached an advanced stage and is unlikely treatable. As result, cervical cancer is the most common form of cancer and the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in Tanzania. Of the more than 6,000 Tanzanian women who are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year, 80% will die within five years. Even more astonishing is that because of our advances in treatment for HIV/AIDS, women in sub-Saharan Africa – the epicenter of the pandemic – are living with HIV, but dying from cervical cancer because of the lack of screenings.
Recognizing the need to screen women early, Jhpiego has pioneered a low-cost cervical cancer screening method called the single visit approach (SVA). Under the single visit approach, women are screened using acetic acid – also known as vinegar – which highlights precancerous lesions on the patient’s cervix only a minute after being applied. If providers identify suspect lesions, they offer the patient immediate treatment during the same visit using a freezing procedure known as cryotherapy. All of this, screening, treatment, and a life cancer free, for less than the cost of a dinner out with your family.
To date, Jhpiego has helped more than 1 million women in 22 countries receive cervical cancer screening through the single visit approach.
During Julietha’s screening, a SVA trained nurse noticed abnormal changes on her cervix that are indicative of precancerous lesions. After confirming her diagnosis, Julietha was treated using cyrotherapy, a procedure that likely saved her life.
Julietha and 13 other women who tested positive for pre-cancerous lesions that day were lucky—a simple, free screening using only vinegar saved their lives. But, millions of women around the world who don’t have access to similar interventions aren’t as fortunate. In the 21st century, women shouldn’t be dying from preventable, treatable diseases simply because of their economic status or geographic location. Early screening and treatment for cervical cancer saves lives. Click here to learn more about this silent killer and the single visit approach.