Bay Area Skeptics

The San Francisco Bay Area's skeptical organization since 1982

When skeptics read a headline like “Vinegar Saves Thousands from Cancer Death,” their defenses are doubtless on red alert. After Vinegar vs PapVinegar vs Papall, a new quack medicine or procedure for cancer treatment seems to appear in the media every other week. But when I clicked on a link today reporting this very connection between household vinegar and cervical cancer, what I found amazed me.

This time, the story was true.

Cervical cancer is a killer. According to the National Cancer Institute, in the U.S. about 12,000 new cases are diagnosed each year. About 1/3 of those die. As with all cancers, the most effective treatment requires early detection through regular screening, the most common of which is the Pap test, a procedure in which cells are scraped from the cervix and examined under a microscope for abnormalities. It is used to detect cancer and changes that may lead to cancer. Unfortunately screening costs money, and in the poorest nations, that’s simply not available.

Enter the vinegar test. Doctors reported today at a medical conference in Chicago the results of a 12-year study involving 150,000 women in the slums of India in which cancer deaths were cut by a full 1/3 using a simple procedure with almost negligible cost. In the procedure, the cervix is swabbed with diluted vinegar which temporarily causes discoloration in cancer cells, allowing reliable early detection without the expense of more sophisticated screening.

In India, cervical cancer is a much larger problem than in the U.S., especially the slums where a majority of the 140,000 yearly cervical cancer cases occurs (22,000 of whom will die). Adding to the problem are cultural issues and lack of education about health screening. Health workers in India have had great difficulty getting past women’s fear and suspicion of a science they don’t understand, reluctance to disrobe or to allow proper physical examinations, and a common cultural belief that any symptoms they might be experiencing are temporary and will go away with time and prayer.

Using a household product and a procedure that can be done in the privacy of their own homes has proved a useful tool in overcoming some of these barriers. In the study, led by Dr. Surendra Shastri of Tata Memorial Hospital in Mumbai, researchers began recruiting women in 1998, leading to 75,360 participants, and a control group of 76,178. The women in the experimental group were screened every two years with the vinegar test, while those in the control group received cancer education and vouchers for a free Pap test. Women in both groups were offered free cancer treatment if they tested positive at any point during the study.

Making the study especially difficult was the lack of freedom and autonomy many Indian women have. In a country where men dominate, women are often at the mercy of their husbands, forced to ask permission to visit a doctor or to receive medical assistance. The study itself came under fire after some questioned the ethics of part of its design. The U.S. Office for Human Research Protections issued a report midway through the study, stating that researchers had not adequately informed control group participants about Pap tests for screening. However, other monitors disagreed, and a remedy was found.

Most exciting was that, although the study was planned to continue for 16 years, results were so positive at the 12 year mark that it was recommended that the study be ended so that those in the control group could be offered the vinegar screening, too.

In addition to tests for HPV (human papillomavirus virus) infection, the vinegar test could help save tens of thousands of women from an early death due to cervical cancer in India alone. Officials in India are busy planning ways to introduce the vinegar testing procedure across the country.

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