In the mountains of El Salvador over the rough terrain of Tanzania, the countless medically underserved communities all over the world as well the US, there are women that are at significant risk of dying of cervical cancer, and have no idea. Even worse, they have no real way of finding out.
Nearly 80% of sexually active woman contract the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). There are certain strains of HPV responsible for 99% of cases of cervical cancer. The fourth most common cancer in women, cervical cancer accounts for over 250,000 deaths per year.
There have been enormous strides in HPV prevention and treatment, yet many of these benefits have only been noticed by women that have regular tests or who live in a region where HPV vaccines are readily available. With the target population comprising of every woman between 30 and 50 years old (according to the World Health Organization), these innovations are reaching only a fraction of those that need it. Strategies are needed to test and treat everyone, regardless of geography.
In 2017, an ambitious approach will be implemented. Scientists have developed a variety of self-administered HPV test kits that can be easily distributed, collected, and analyzed by a laboratory. The idea is that women can administer their own test, send a sample back to a lab, and if a dangerous strain of HPV is identified, receive the necessary treatment. The tests have been tested in 36 unique studies totaling over 150,000 women and have shown comparable results to the traditional testing methods. While sensitivity is slightly less, the negative predictive value is strong enough to concentrate further testing and treatment efforts on the 10-15% of women whose screens will come back positive.
Cervical cancer prevention has been listed as a “Sustainable Development Goal” of the United Nations. Numerous government taskforces, including the World Health Organization, are funding ambitious efforts to curb this deadly disease, as well as to develop low-cost treatment when HPV is detected. Given the results of several pilot studies expected to conclude later this year, experts believe 2017 will be the year these tests are deployed on a large scale, representing the largest scale prevention strategy for cervical cancer to date.
While the experiment to stem the deadly tide of cervical cancer is promising, the unique approach is a credit to innovators that are capitalizing on the power of one of the oldest communication device in history: the mailbox.