Dr. Yacouba Ouedraogo runs the cervical cancer prevention program at the Jhpiego clinic in Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou.
He says that cervical cancer has become the most common type of cancer in women in Burkina Faso, but the means of treating it are extremely limited. He says detecting and treating cervical cancer in its early stages has recently become much easier.
Doctors there are taking a cotton swab dipped in distilled white vinegar – the kind you buy in any market in Africa – and then rubbing it on the opening of a woman’s uterus, which is called the cervix. Once the vinegar is applied, any pre-cancerous or cancerous cells will turn white.
Dr. Stanislas Paul Nebie has been using the vinegar test on his patients since 2010.
He says that unlike other tests, which are expensive and time-consuming, and require sending cell samples to a lab, sometimes overseas, the vinegar test is very simple. He says doctors can see any abnormal lesions immediately. He says that if the vinegar detects pre-cancerous cells, they can be treated during the same visit using a cryogenic freezing technique.
At this clinic in Ouagadougou, women pay just $4 for the test and follow-up treatment if abnormal cells need to be frozen off.
Dr. Nebie says this is a bargain considering the high cost of radiology or surgery if the cancer is not caught early. He said health clinics, even in the most remote villages, can and are performing the vinegar test and referring patients for treatment.
The World Health Organization (WHO) says cervical cancer kills 250,000 women worldwide each year and four out of five of those women are in low-income countries, like Burkina Faso.
Cervical cancer tends to be asymptomatic until its in advanced stages when it is more difficult to treat. Women simply do not know they have it, sometimes until it is too late. That is why in developed countries like the United States, women go for annual routine screenings called PAP smears.
Burkina Faso does not yet have statistics on how many lives the vinegar test has saved. However, doctors in India announced at an international conference this year that using the vinegar test had cut cervical cancer deaths by 31 percent in a study there involving 150,000 women.
Dr. Nebie says this test saves lives but only if women come in for routine check-ups – something that many are not used to doing.
He says that cervical cancer continues to kill women because many of them don’t know that it is a real problem. He says there’s not even a word for it in our local language. He says it is very challenging when you go to a village and try to convince a woman – a woman who doesn’t feel sick – to pay for a test for a disease she doesn’t know exists.
Still, the doctors say that one day, they hope the vinegar test will help them bring the number of cervical cancer deaths to zero.