Cervical Cancer Screening and COVID-19

by Harry Goldhagen; Published 9/5/2020

Woman in surgical mask
Image by Juraj Varga from Pixabay

The coronavirus pandemic that continues to sweep the globe has had a major impact on the delivery of medical care at offices, clinics, and hospitals. Each interaction brings the risk of transmitting infection, so strategies that minimize contact, such as telemedicine, have been a positive step. But clinical testing usually requires in-person visits with trained personnel. Or do they?

Grounds for Health, an organization that screens women for cervical cancer in poor coffee-growing regions, has begun introducing HPV self-sampling to reduce the chances of transmitting the coronavirus. (HPV, or human papilloma virus, is the primary cause of cervical cancer.) The organization will pick up the samples and bring them to a health center to be tested. Only those who test positive, roughly 15%, will need to come to the center for treatment, thus minimizing exposure for most women.

As GFH begins sending the expensive HPV test equipment to countries they cover, they continue to screen women in local clinics as safely as they can, using vinegar to reveal early HPV lesions, a process known as “visual inspection with acetic acid,” or VIA, according to Ellen Starr, MSN, Executive Director of GFH. During this challenging period, they plan “to collect data on the pros and cons of various approaches and share what we learn with others trying to reach women in the very rural communities of developing countries around the world,” Ms. Starr wrote in an email.

According to the World Health Organization, cervical cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in women in low- and middle-income countries. A review by the WHO found that women who took their own samples were twice as likely to participate in screening than those who were tested in clinics.

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