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Cheap test with vinegar checks for cervical cancer; seaweed may help prevent it

Who knew that vinegar can screen for for cervical cancer? Or that a substance in seaweed may block the infection that leads to the cancer?

Search for “uses of vinegar” online and you’ll be bombarded with Web sites and books touting its versatility, from polishing silver to deodorizing lunch boxes. Even Hippocrates reportedly treated wounds with the stuff in 420 B.C. More intriguing is the possibility it might help with blood-sugar control in those with diabetes and prediabetes (still being studied so don’t start guzzling vinegar with every meal).

A health worker briefed a group of women about cervical cancer last month in a Mumbai slum. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)
A health worker from Tata Memorial Centre in Mumbai briefed a group of women about cervical cancer last month during a visit to a city slum. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)

Now a 12-year study out of India shows that using a test with vinegar instead of the more expensive and sometimes inaccessible Pap smear cut the death rate from cervical cancer by nearly one-third. That translates to saving the lives of 22,000 women a year in India and 73,000 worldwide in developing countries.

Results of the research, led by Surendra Srinivas Shastri at Tata Memorial Centre in Mumbai, were presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology in Chicago on Sunday.

We’re more than a little spoiled here in the United States, those of us with health insurance and access to medical care. It’s considered standard to visit the gynecologist regularly for a Pap smear to check for cervical cancer. But women in remote and rural areas of India often can’t get to a medical facility with a physician or nurse who can administer the screening test, so trained health workers, armed with vinegar, go to them instead. In fact, some of the women, even some who’ve given birth, have never had a gynecological exam.

Local women with at least a 10th-grade education and “good communication skills” were trained for four weeks (with a one-week refresher course each year) to do the test, which involves applying diluted vinegar, or a 0.5 percent acetic acid solution, with a cotton swab to the cervix. Precancerous cells turn white and can be seen with the naked eye using a speculum and light. (This animated film shows how it’s done.)

Visual inspection with acetic acid, or VIA, isn’t new. Other studies have shown it to be an acceptable and cost-efficient screening method for cervical cancer in developing countries; Indian researchers reported in 2006 that most women did not have any pain or felt only mild discomfort during the test and that 97 percent would recommend it to others.

Grounds for Health, which provides health care to women in coffee-growing communities around the world, already uses VIA, and so has the World Health Organization (as part of a project in six African countries).

Deaths from cervical cancer in the United States dropped by more than 60 percent from 1955 to 1992, a decline attributed to the widespread use of Pap smears for screening. Precancerous lesions are often discovered and treated before cancer has a chance to develop. The National Institutes of Health reports that the frequency of cervical cancer in the United States has dropped to 14th from being one of the most common forms of the disease.

Yet cervical cancer kills around 250,000 women worldwide each year, and nearly 80 percent of them live in low-income areas, according to the World Health Organization.

The discovery that cervical cancer is caused by infection with different types of HPV, the human papillomavirus, had led to the development of two vaccines in this country, but they’re expensive.

Now there’s a potential low-cost fix: carageenan. That’s the stuff derived from red seaweed used as a food additive. Recent studies show the inexpensive gelling agent inhibits HPV infection in the lab and some animal models. What’s interesting is that the stuff is already being added as a thickener in some sexual lubricants and in lubricated condoms.

McGill University and the National Cancer Institute have teamed up for a study with human subjects to test whether a personal lubricant containing carageenan can stop HPV.

Vinegar and seaweed: Who would have thought they could save women’s lives?

Diana Reese is a journalist in Overland Park, Kan. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.

Diana Reese is a journalist in Overland Park, Kan. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.

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