Defeating Cervical Cancer with Vinegar in Zambia

The HPV vaccine has proved to be an invaluable development against the development of cervical cancer in women. It is already saving lives.

However vinegar, the same thing you find in your household pantry, is also vital to making sure that lives are not lost to cervical cancer. With just a simple swab of vinegar, a medical professional can detect whether or not a woman has cervical cancer. The immediate feedback, ease of use and cheap cost means that more women will be diagnosed earlier.

Lauren Bohn recently wrote about its impact on women in Zambia for The Daily Beast.

For the N’gombe health clinic’s community health-care manager, Ignicious Bulango, the method is indeed transformative, but the country still has a long way to go. “Cervical cancer, and cancer in general, isn’t necessarily on the radar like malaria and HIV/AIDS for the majority of Zambians and most of Africa, but we’re getting there,” he said. “It’s a process.”

Pharmaceutical companies have also caught on, seeking to introduce their vaccinations against human papillomavirus (HPV), the sexually transmitted virus that can lead to cervical cancer. In countries like Zambia where sexually-transmitted-disease rates are high, the link to cervical cancer is pressing. Merck and GlaxoSmithKline, makers of the HPV vaccines, announced last spring that they would lower the prices for their vaccines to less than $5 a shot. In the U.S., each shot costs more than $100.

“By 2020 we hope to reach more than 30 million girls in more than 40 countries,” Dr. Seth Berkley, CEO of the GAVI Alliance, said in a statement. The organization, which aims to increase access to immunization in poor countries, said it will begin its support for HPV vaccines in Kenya, followed by Ghana, Laos, Madagascar, Malawi, Niger, Sierra Leone, and Tanzania.

Separately, Zambia recently launched a pilot vaccination campaign for teenage girls. Last year, in conjunction with the country’s Ministry of Health, Merck donated doses of Gardasil, the HPV vaccine widely used in the United States, to vaccinate 25,000 girls. The first lady of Zambia, Christine Kaseba, a gynecologist, has made cervical cancer her main platform. At a recent Stop Cervical Cancer in Africa Conference in Mozambique, Kaseba said 24,172 young girls had so far been vaccinated.

But in a country choked by stark urban and rural divides, most of Zambia’s bottlenecks lie in access and awareness. While the vinegar test is relatively simple, training workers and reaching patients in isolated, roadless areas can be next to impossible. Two thirds of Zambians live without electricity on less than $2 a day, with 60 percent live in hard-to-reach, sparsely populated rural areas. The average distance to a hospital for most people in the country is 53 miles.

In Zambia’s Eastern province, a bumpy and scorching 11-hour bus ride from the capital (or a $700 charter flight for the precious few who can afford it), volunteer community health workers like Evelyn Phiriare are trying to fill in the cracks.