HPV test proves more accurate for cervical cancer screening

Medical News Today reports that two new studies show an HPV test to be a more accurate means of screening for cervical cancer than the traditional Pap test (also known as the smear test in the UK).

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is responsible for over 70% of cervical cancers, and is potentially a key early indicator of cervical cancer risk. Both new studies published in the journal Gynecologic Oncology found that screening for HPV infection alone provides more accurate results for both HPV infection and cervical cancer screening than the alternatives of a Pap or a co-test for these conditions.

The findings reported in the first paper were the result of a panel convened following an application to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for an HPV test to be used for primary HPV-cervical cancer screening. Consisting of experts from all major organizations in the US involved in cervical cancer screening, the panel assessed the safety and effectiveness of HPV testing based on a literature review and data from the Addressing the Need for Advanced HPV Diagnostics (ATHENA) study, commissioned to support the FDA application.

Study author Dr. Warner Huh, from the Department of Gynecologic Oncology at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, said: "We found that, in patients aged 25 years and upwards, primary HPV testing performed better than a Pap alone, and we recommend that such tests should be carried out no sooner than every 3 years."

The second paper, based on results from the ATHENA trial, compared results from 42,209 women aged 25 and older who had Pap and HPV testing. It was found that the HPV test identified about twice as many serious cases of cervical disease in the 25-29 age group as the Pap test.

Dr. Huh added: "We believe that primary HPV testing has potential to further reduce cervical cancer in the US." In some countries – such as Australia and the Netherlands – primary HPV screening has already been adopted. The NHS currently uses the traditional Pap/smear test.

Cervical cancer is the most common cancer in women under the age of 35, and approximately 3,100 women are diagnosed in the UK every year. Despite a nationwide cervical cancer screening programme that has been in place in the UK since the 1980s, only 66% of younger women and 80% of older women attend screening. If cervical cancer is diagnosed in the early stages, however, up to 90% of women under 40 will survive.

Mr Jullien Brady, Consultant Gynaecologist and Clinical Adviser at Check4Cancer, comments: “We have always been strong advocates of the HPV test. Pap or smear tests are not particularly pleasant to undergo, which undoubtedly is a factor contributing to the low uptake amongst younger women. The HPV test is far easier to administer and less invasive, to the extent that the test we use for our GynaeCheck service can be carried out by women themselves in the privacy of their own homes. I believe this can really help to overcome some of the barriers to attending cervical screenings.

“The test has other significant advantages that put it clearly ahead of traditional screening techniques. It can detect the presence of other infections, most notably chlamydia, one of the commonest causes of infertility in women. Most important of all, it can highlight those at risk before cancer itself even develops, which means the possibility of early detection is greatly increased – the most critical factor in successful treatment and survival.”