Cervical cancer is the most common cancer among women in developing countries, most frequently killing women in their late 40s and early 50s. “At that age,” says Professor Lynette Denny, head of Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, “women are frequently heads of households, and are morally and socially the most important people in their communities.” Yet the disease is largely preventable.
The normal medical procedure for screening for cervical cancer – the pap smear – is quick and simple, but it requires expensive infrastructure and has not been readily available in poorer communities.
Denny, in collaboration with Columbia University in New York, set out to identify a technologically less complex test in 1995. They found the answer in vinegar. In the low-cost test, a nurse washes the cervix with vinegar, which turns precancerous lesions white, then inspects the cervix with a bright light. It is, according to Denny, as effective as a Pap smear in detecting the lesions.
The project has tested 30,000 people in her Khayelitsha clinics to date and been replicated in many countries in the developing world. The work has won a number of awards, and Denny thinks the reason is that it is “a combination of high-quality science and a community-based project that also provides a comprehensive health-care service to the women who participate”.
More recently, Denny and her team conducted the first human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine trial in the world in HIV-positive women, and are about to start a new study in screening for HPV that will give the patient a result within an hour. It will, like much of Denny’s work, be revolutionary.