Cervical cancer: HPV test introduced in England

A “superior” test for cervical cancer is now being offered to millions of women following a successful pilot programme in the UK.

The test, which targets HPV (human papilloma virus), is being rolled out in surgeries and clinics and should be available nationwide within two years.

HPV is known to trigger nearly all tumours – around 97% – and use of the new process will make testing far more accurate than the current smear tests alone. Experts estimate it could prevent 600 cancers a year and save additional lives by flagging up abnormalities long before tumours have had the chance to develop.

There are around 3,000 cases of cervical cancer in the UK each year, with 900 deaths from the disease. It is most common in women under the age of 45, and many of those affected by it are women in their 20s and 30s. Smear tests are currently offered every three years to all women over 25, and every five years for women over 45.

The new test does not replace smear testing, but is performed on the sample of cells taken during the cervical screening smear test. Women who test positive can be given more frequent checks, and those who are found to have abnormal cells in their smear sample can be referred for further investigation and, if necessary, treatment. Those who test negative for HPV, however, can be advised that their risk of cancer is low and remain on the routine screening schedule.

HPV testing is also more accurate than the current smear test, which relies on visual checks on cells in the lab, and which can mean abnormalities are missed, or healthy women needlessly undergo further invasive checks or surgery.

Public Health Minister Jane Ellison, commented: “These changes are a breakthrough in the way we test women for cervical disease. The new test is more accurate, more personal and will reduce anxiety among women. Cervical screening currently saves 4,500 lives a year, and this new test will ensure the early signs are spotted and treated earlier.”

Jullien Brady, Clinical Advisor for GynaeCheck and Check4Cancer, who has extensive experience of working in the UK cervical screening programme, comments: “HPV testing is clearly the way forward with regard to the prevention of cervical cancer – which is precisely why we have based our GynaeCheck service around simpler and more accurate HPV tests. Our understanding of cervical cancer is such that it is now an almost entirely preventable disease, but the biggest issue we face is persuading women to take up the test appointments they are offered. Currently, around 900,000 eligible women do not attend smear tests – but the knowledge that the testing is becoming more targeted and more accurate will, I hope, convince many of these that their appointment is worthwhile. The simple fact is, if a woman attends the regular screenings when she’s invited, her chances of dying from cervical cancer are almost zero.”