WHO: Cervical Cancer Largely Preventable

Almost a quarter million women worldwide die from cervical cancer (search) each year although the disease is largely preventable, the U.N. health agency said Thursday.

Cancer of the cervix, (search) at the base of the uterus, kills more women annually than childbirth, but the number of cervical cancer cases could be significantly reduced through effective screening and treatment, the World Health Organization (search) said.

A further half million women are diagnosed with the cancer each year, 80 percent of whom come from the world's poor countries, said the agency in a 255-page manual for implementing cervical cancer programs.

Some 230,000 women die from cervical cancer each year, it said.

"By 2050, there will be 1 million new cases of cervical cancer each year in the developing world alone," said Dr. Peter Boyle, director of the World Health Organization's cancer research team. "But cervical cancer is one form of cancer where we can do something about it."

In rich countries, most women regularly receive Pap smears (search) — reducing the rate of cervical cancer by up to 90 percent — but the developing world generally lacks the resources and training to provide similar diagnoses, said Dr. Rengaswamy Sankaranarayanan, a WHO expert on cancer screening.

WHO's manual outlines more affordable strategies for diagnosing and treating the cancer, including visual checks and using compressed gas to freeze precancerous lesions.

Pap tests involve scraping cells from the cervix and examining them for abnormalities under a microscope. Early detection can help doctors cure or even prevent cervical cancer, because the disease takes many years to develop from detectable lesions to a life-threatening illness.

"Cervical cancer is a disease of poor women," Sankaranarayanan said. "Such a luxury is not possible in low-resource settings."

The manual says an inexpensive test involves a drop of vinegar on the cervix. A physician looking through a scope watches to see whether the vinegar turns white, which would indicate precancerous lesions.

The highest rates of cervical cancer are found in Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America, the report found.

Virtually all cases of cervical cancer are caused by infection with human papilloma virus, or HPV, which is spread through sex. One strain, HPV-16, accounts for about half of all cervical cancers.

But tests for HPV cost $20 to $40 each, far too high for poor countries, and WHO would like to see cheaper HPV tests.

"Up to five dollars would be a reasonable cost," Sankaranarayanan said.

If the manual's guidelines for diagnosis and treatment are implemented properly, rates of infection could be halved, Sankaranarayanan said.