Testing for the human papilloma virus (HPV) that causes cervical cancer and treating it the same day as the test results cuts the death rate by 47 per cent, reports a study of 131,746 women from 52 villages across India. Of the 5 lakh cervical cancer cases reported every year worldwide, one-fifth -1 lakh – occur in India.
Jade Goody was one of 2.7 lakh women globally – and almost 70,000 of them in India – who die of cervical cancer every year. “Cervical cancer is the number one cancer among women in India, accounting for one lakh of the 9 lakh new cancer cases reported each year.
What’s more, the HPV virus – that is sexually-transmitted and flourishes in poor hygiene conditions – causes over 80 per cent of cervical cancers in India, so early screening and detection can save thousands of lives each year,” says Dr G. K. Rath, head of the cancer centre at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. The study was led by Dr Rengaswamy Sankaranarayanan from the International Agency for Research on Cancer in Lyon, France, and reported in The New England Journal of Medicine.
In the eight-year study, 131,746 women were divided into four groups. Three of the groups were treated immediately on getting test results – one by traditional PAP smears, a second group by acetic vinegar swab, and the third by HPV test.
The fourth group was educated about cervical cancer and advised to get tested. Follow-ups showed that only the HPV-tested group had a marked reduction in deaths as compared with the group that was just told about the cancer.
Researchers said this is because the HPV test gives faster, more sensitive results than a PAP smear, which is not just slower but also dependent on skilled interpretation. The vinegar swab is a cheap way to mark damaged tissues but unspecific.
“In a low-resource setting, a single round of HPV testing was associated with a significant reduction in the numbers of advanced cervical cancers and deaths from cervical cancer,” concluded the study. Qiagen NV, the Netherlands-based manufacturer of the viral tests that doesn’t need electricity, clean running water or sophisticated lab support, has donated one million HPV tests worth US$30 million to developing countries.
The Dutch company is working on a simpler version of the test for US$5 (Rs 200). “I’d like to see an HPV test priced at $1 or less.
Many countries won’t be able to afford it otherwise,” said Sankaranarayanan. The study was funded with $2.3 million in grants by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, while PATH, a Seattle- based non-profit organisation, trained the people involved in the study.