Yes, Cervix Selfies Are Happening in Kenya—for a Good Cause

A smartphone device that takes detailed photographs to screen for cervical cancer and provides quick results could save hundreds of thousands of women.

Triza Okal (left) and Catherine Njeri celebrate after the results from their cervical cancer screenings come back normal. (Photo: Abigail Higgins)

Oct 21, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Abigail Higgins is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya and New York City. She has written for Al Jazeera, The Boston Globe, and The Times of London on women's rights, global health, and development.

Okal Triza didn’t want her teachers to find out she was getting screened for cervical cancer.

It’s not that they would oppose it; they just might prefer she didn’t cut class to do it.

But Triza knew that skipping class today could save her life tomorrow.

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.

But amid a slew of bleak statistics, that a college student in Nairobi knows the importance of cervical cancer screening is a reason for optimism.

A line of women jockeyed for position at the gate of the 9th Annual Stop Cervical, Breast & Prostate Cancer in Africa Conference. It was the last day to get free screenings, and it seemed everyone had waited until the last minute.

Women waiting to get inside the 9th Stop Cervical, Breast & Prostate Cancer in Africa Conference, in Nairobi, Kenya, in the hopes of getting a free screening. (Photo: Courtesy Abigail Higgins)

Under a canopy of white tents, dozens of women were being screened using a smartphone-enabled device developed by MobileODT.

“Every woman screened is a potential life saved,” said Curtis Peterson, the head of partnerships at MobileODT.

The sense of urgency is well-founded. Cervical cancer is simple to treat, but only if it’s caught early. In Kenya, most cases aren’t detected until it’s too late.

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Triza came bouncing back from her screening—all clear.

“I was a bit nervous but I’m just happy to know now,” she said. “Now I know that my breast is safe and my cervix is OK.”

Triza had dragged her friend Catherine Njeri along. When Njeri came out of her screening with a somber look on her face, Triza’s enthusiasm waned. Njeri started crying. The nurse had told her she might have precancerous lesions.

“I was frustrated and shocked. I’m young—how can I get cancer at this age?” said Njeri, 19.

Cervical cancer is the most common cause of cancer deaths among women in Kenya, compared with fourth globally.

In most Western countries, women are screened via Pap smear, a procedure in which cells are taken from the cervix and sent to a lab. Using this method, Njeri wouldn’t have received results until days or weeks later, and she might have never made it to her follow-up visits.

Because many women in Kenya live in remote areas or can’t afford additional hospital trips they often fall through the cracks.

(Photo: Facebook)

But 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.

With a Pap, Njeri would have been physically reexamined. “It’s very uncomfortable for the patient if you have five faces looking at your cervix; that’s scary. This gives them dignity and privacy,” said Mwangi.

On reexamination, she had good news for Njeri: Everything looked fine.

“I feel good and great that I’m OK and it’s normal,” said Njeri.

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.

As with all the women screened, Triza and Njeri both saw pictures of their cervices. These photos produced a reaction none of the medical professionals anticipated.

One patient threw her arms around Mwangi and exclaimed, “Thank you for showing me my cervix!”

“Women have been so excited about their cervix, it completely changed the patient encounter,” said Peterson. “What was previously an opaque process is now clear.”

MobileODT is also hoping to build a new feature into the device.

“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.

Unbridled enthusiasm for cervical cancer screening—now there’s a reason for optimism.