A simple screening programme has been devised for cervical cancer using vinegar.

It has helped reduce deaths caused by the cancer by 31% in a group of 150,000 women in India.

Cervical cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths among women in India and in many parts of the developing world.

A vinegar solution is applied to the cervix, which can make pre-cancerous tissues turn white and visible to the naked eye after only a minute.

The team said if the screening is implemented broadly, that it  could prevent 22,000 deaths from cervical cancer in India, and 72,000 deaths in the developing world each year.

Dr Surendra Shastri of Tata Memorial Hospital in Mumbai, India, said currently there are no cervical cancer screening programmes in India.

This is mainly because PAP smear screening, the conventional test done among women in developed countries, is not possible because of issues like logistics, infrastructure and high costs.

"We hope our results will have a profound effect in reducing the burden of cervical cancer in India and around the world," Dr Shastri said.

The study involved women selected from 20 slums in the city of Mumbai.

To overcome some of the social barriers of screening, the team first met with religious, political and community to gain enthusiasm for the programme.

For the screening program, the team trained young women with at least a 10th grade education on how to apply the vinegar solution and evaluate the results.

As a result of these efforts, "the screening participation rates were 89%, huge for a country like India," Shastri told the briefing.

The study involved women aged 35 to 64 with no previous history of cancer. 

The screening group got four rounds of this vinegar treatment and visual inspection plus cancer education every two years.

All of the women in the study were offered treatment for their cervical cancers.

Based on the study results, Shastri said the Indian government plans to take up the screening program on a population basis.

In the state of Maharashtra, where the trial was done, health officials are preparing to train primary health care workers to provide the screening.

Dr Jyoti Patel of Northwestern University in Chicago, a spokeswoman for ASCO, said the programme would be easily implemented among a broad group of women.

Doctors at the meeting said the programme could offer a good alternative to PAP testing and that similar efforts have been tried in parts of Africa.