Nonprofit fights cancer in poor countries
By WILSON RING
The Associated Press | May 27,2013
WATERBURY — A small nonprofit group in Vermont is making its mark worlds away, teaching health care workers in developing countries how to perform a simple test and treatment that has saved the lives of women with one clinic visit.
Grounds for Health, based in Waterbury, developed the approach to reduce the incidence of cervical cancer.
The group this week will be recognized at a meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where two staffers will take part in an international call for greater access to cervical cancer screening programs for women around the world.
The tests are inexpensive. Vinegar is used to wash the woman’s cervix. If precancerous cells are present, they turn white immediately. They can then be removed using carbon dioxide gas.
“You freeze it. And in 10 minutes, it’s gone, 90 percent effective,” August Burns, executive director of Grounds for Health, said. “This is the best buy in public health right now because we can take a major killer, for pennies, with the simplest technology. We like to call it simple but elegant. And we can stop cervical cancer.”
Burns said cervical cancer is the No. 1 cause of cancer deaths for women in developing countries. In the United States and other Western countries, the cancer can be prevented.
“The difference is lack of access to health care, basic preventative screening and early treatment for cervical precancer,” she said. “That’s the difference. We have it. They don’t.”
More recently, the HPV vaccine has been used to protect women from a virus associated with cervical cancer. But the vaccine is too expensive for much of the developing world.
Grounds for Health was founded 17 years ago when an international coffee executive, Dan Cox, and a retired doctor-friend noticed many women were dying in the rural communities of southern Mexico that grew the coffee beans Cox bought.
The group initially used volunteers to do the screenings then began training local doctors and nurses in countries where it operates. By the time Grounds for Health stopped operating in Mexico last year, it had screened almost 19,000 women and trained 128 doctors and nurses.
The group now works in coffee-growing areas of Nicaragua, Peru and Tanzania. Its budget is just under $1 million, with most of the money coming from coffee companies.
Burns and senior program officer Rebecca Singer plan to attend the Women Deliver conference in Malaysia this week. The meeting focuses on women’s health. Burns will head a meeting called the Global Forum on Cervical Cancer Prevention.
“Even though we are a relatively small (group) based in Vermont, through practice, through experience, through outcomes, we have been able to gain a seat at the table of those who will make the decisions that will impact the world around this disease,” Development Director Jane Sakovitz Dale said. “We have a seat at the table to really influence the international approach to this global killer of women.”
It’s hard to estimate how many lives have been saved because of Grounds for Health. While many women develop the precancerous conditions, not all go on to develop cervical cancer. But there are clear-cut success stories.
Burns said that once while visiting a coffee cooperative in a remote part of Tanzania, a man and his wife walked eight hours one way so the wife could be screened.
“She had a major lesion,” Burns said. “We were able to treat it, right there on the spot ... that woman, from what I saw, would have been dead in five years, more than likely. I will always keep her in my mind. That’s who we work for.”