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Screening for cervical cancer with a smartphone in Africa 0

By Ashliegh Gehl, Kingston This Week / Frontenac This Week

Queen's University researcher Dr. Karen Yeates (left) is using cellphone technology to screen for cervical cancer in low-resource countries like Tanzania.     Supplied photo

Queen's University researcher Dr. Karen Yeates (left) is using cellphone technology to screen for cervical cancer in low-resource countries like Tanzania. Supplied photo

Smartphone users can attest that there seems to be an app for just about everything. From translation to finding cheap gas to tracking calories, these small handheld devices are changing the way people interact with the world. They can also be powerful tools for saving lives in a low-resource country like Tanzania.

Dr. Karen Yeates, a co-director at The Office of Global Health Care at Queen’s University, is working with Olola Oneko at the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Centre for Reproductive Health to execute a project that will help detect cervical cancer using cellphones.

It’s a project that has just received a $100,000 Rising Stars in Global Health grant from Grand Challenges Canada to aid in the implementation of the project. Only 17 Canadians were selected for the grant.

The project began with a couple of Queen’s medical students who were working on a research course with Yeates and Dr. Jenn Carpenter, of the Office of Global Health Care, last year. The students were picking topics they were interested in when they started talking about some of the health issues women have in Tanzania, a place Yeates and Carpenter started a women’s health project in 2007. Students started to research cervical cancer in the developing world, narrowing in on Sub-Saharan Africa.

“They realized that there are a lot of women who die of cervical cancer there, where there are very few dying in Canada, in any developed country,” said Yeates.

Two students went to Tanzania to ask women if they’ve ever had cervical cancer screenings, if they knew what it was, the risks involved and the barriers preventing them from getting screened.

“There’s very little access to Pap smears, because there’s not enough pathologists to be able to read the film,” said Yeates.

The contemporary method of testing for cervical cancer is visual inspection with acetic acid, also known as VIA. With the cervix exposed, a swab of vinegar is put on it. With the naked eye, they determine if there are any changes suggesting early or late stages of cancer.

“It’s been shown, in the right hands, with proper training, that it has a fairly good detection rate for cervical cancer, but it’s not perfect,” said Yeates.

Last year, when Yeates was in Tanzania running several research projects, she met with a gynecologist trained in cerviography. It mixes the VIA method with photography.

“Instead of inspecting it with the human eye, they take a photograph with a digital camera, upload the picture on to a television screen or a computer screen and magnify the picture so that you can get a better geography of the cervix,” said Yeates.

Having learned the method was fairly isolated and that very few were trained in it, she started to wonder if it was possible to attempt cerviography using a cellphone with a high-quality camera. During an examination, the health care worker can take a photograph, attach it with an ID number, text it to a doctor to diagnose the image and recommend a treatment via text.

“They can look at the photo instantly, like at that moment, and they would know that the team is going into the villages, and they would be prepared and be ready to look at the photos, and they can text back and say, this cervix is normal, this cervix is not normal,” she said.

The idea behind the Rising Stars in Global Health grant is to prove that the idea works, to smooth all of the kinks. Once the project is implemented and it can be proven that it works, recipients are invited to apply for a $1-million grant.

Yeates and her team will be starting the study in January in Tanzania, figuring out what the best low-cost cellphone they can purchase on the ground in Africa that can be used, and if they can train nurses to do it. A number of dry runs will also take place, to see how the texting aspect works.

When students were in Tanzania last summer they interviewed 633 women, and they discovered that 93 per cent of women in the study had never been tested for cervical cancer.

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