Screening for Cervical Cancer in Africa with Mobile Phones

Laurie and Debbie say:

Some of the most exciting health innovations depending on mobile phones are happening in Africa, where a widespread mobile phone and tablet culture is making amazing advances in treating health problems, such as diagnosing pneumonia and cardiac disease.

Africa is often stereotyped as the continent of hopeless disaster and poverty. In reality a vibrant, exciting, innovative culture is addressing many African people’s life-and-death issues: the “developed” countries have a great deal to learn.

women lining up for cell phone cervical cancer screenings (photo by Abigail Higgins)

To get a cervical cancer screening in America, a woman has to go to her doctor or to Planned Parenthood (long may they survive and thrive!). Abigail Higgins at TakePart describes a different option in Africa:

More than a quarter of a million women die of cervical cancer every year, almost as many as are killed by pregnancy or childbirth complications. More than 88 percent of these women live in the developing world. …

[Catherine] Njeri was screened using visual inspection with acetic acid—simple, white vinegar that causes any precancerous lesions to turn white. It’s an attractive alternative in low-resource settings such as Kenya.

The smartphone device allows a nurse to take a detailed photograph of the cervix, a much less invasive procedure than a Pap smear.

“I love this technology because it makes so much sense. It’s so simple. It’s so practical,” said Dinah Mwangi, the head of field operations at MobileODT.

Mwangi was able to take the photograph and consult with other medical practitioners on the spot. If the appointment had been in a rural area, she could have consulted other doctors for a second opinion, using an application to send the photograph.

If the results had not been normal, she would have been treated with cryotherapy immediately, eliminating the possibility that doctors might lose touch with her until it was too late.

Stop for a moment and think about how amazing that is. A simple, inexpensive device that, used with ordinary white vinegar, identifies precancerous lesions, allows the practitioner to consult, and has an immediate treatment on site!

Triza Okal and Catherine NJeri after cervical cancer screening (photo: Abigail Higgins)

Plus, there’s a delightful body image aspect. It turns out that these women love seeing their own cervices.  Although the pictures are actually taken by nurses, the response to them is pure 21st century selfie culture:

“Women have been so excited about their cervix, it completely changed the patient encounter,” said [Curtis] Peterson [of Mobile ODT, which makes the screening device] “What was previously an opaque process is now clear.” …

“They want to text [the picture of their cervix] to their phone, or they want it emailed to them, or they want us to send it to them on WhatsApp so they can take it home and show their husband and friends,” said Peterson.

The combination of being able to get a picture of your own cervix and a culture which encourages you to share pictures is changing the way these women see their bodies, and especially the internal, usually invisible parts of their bodies.

Who knows when cervix-sharing pix will become a fad in the developed countries? Meanwhile, we celebrate the African women being screened and treated, and the people who are making it possible.