15 July 2012

Harrison's Ch. 97: "Gynecologic Malignancies"

While I attempt to read the 397 chapters of Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, I am writing occasional reflections.

Cervical cancer is not so scary to Americans anymore because of the Pap smear. Pap smears are good at detecting pre-cancerous cervical cells, and over the past 50 years its widespread adoption has dramatically reduced cervical cancer diagnoses and deaths in the developed world. Unlike most cancers, cervical cancer is usually caused by a viral infection. Certain strains of the human papilloma virus (HPV) predispose cervical cells they infect to malignancy. Now that vaccination against some of these HPV strains is available in the U.S., we can expect the cervical cancer rate to drop even further. It is a triumph of preventive medicine.

These triumphs have barely helped the developing world, though. One of the most preventable forms of cancer still kills surprisingly many.

A handful of researchers are trying to help. Doctors in the U.S. sometimes apply vinegar (acetic acid) to the cervix so that they can visualize cervical cancer cells with the naked eye. The acid turns the cancer cells white. It seems that vinegar could be similarly used in the developing world as a low-cost replacement for the Pap smear. If the health worker sees white lesions, he can freeze them off with a simple metal rod cooled by liquid carbon dioxide.

I think it's incumbent upon us to translate our high-tech scientific advances into low-tech tools that can benefit all.