Vinegar Key Ingredient to Preventing Cervical Cancer in India

1/9/2013, 2:13 p.m.

Cervical cancer used to kill more women in the United States than any other cancer. Today, deaths in the US are almost unheard of thanks to a decades-old test called a Pap smear, which allows for early detection and treatment. In India, however, tens of thousands of women still die each year from cervical cancer.

"It's just not possible for us to provide [the Pap test] as frequently as it is done in the West," says Dr. Surendra Shastri, a cancer specialist at Tata Memorial Hospital in Mumbai.

The Pap test requires trained personnel and well-equipped labs, which many parts of India do not have.

"So what do we do?" Shastri asks. "We can't let the women die."

It turns out there may be a simple answer. It's a cheap and easy test developed by scientists at Johns Hopkins University and other institutions. And it relies on something you probably have in your kitchen.

Acid Test

I came to the village of Dervan in the Indian state of Maharashtra to see how the test works.

Doctors had set up a temporary clinic in the shell of an empty store. A sheet hung from the ceiling to provide some privacy. There was no electricity--not even a light bulb--in the storefront.

About a dozen Muslim women in headscarves had come for the test. One was on the exam table, her long brown skirt pushed aside. With her friends sitting nearby, she looked calm and ready.

Dr. Archana Saunke took a cotton swab and applied a clear liquid to the woman's cervix.

"We wait for one minute, and we see if there is any patch--yellowish patch," she explained.

If the liquid makes the normally pink cervix turn white or yellow, that means there are precancerous cells--cells that could become cancer.

Within a minute or two, the doctor had some good news for her patient.

"It's normal," Saunke said. The woman smiled broadly.

When tests yield bad news and show precancerous cells, those can be removed on the spot with a squirt of liquid nitrogen. No return trip is needed. So what is this clear liquid Dr. Saunke applied?

"Acetic acid," she says, also known as common household vinegar.

Overcoming Resistance

The tests being done here are part of a trial program being run by Tata Memorial Hospital and Walawalkar Hospital, where Dr. Suvarna Patil is medical director.

Patil says when the vinegar test was first brought to the villages, women were not interested, even though it was free.

"Whenever we used to go to their houses, they used to shut the doors. They would say, 'No, we don't want [it]. You go away.'"

Patil says many women found testing a bother. They were embarrassed to have a vaginal exam, and for what? They didn't think cancer could be treated.

India being a country of high- and low-tech solutions, Patil sent out health workers with computers loaded with PowerPoint presentations. They put up posters around town and performed plays. They talked to students in schools and to village leaders.