It’s been more than 60 years since the pap test has become a standard form of cervical cancer detection for American women, but could it be going away?
Research published in Gynecologic Oncology this past year said screening for the human papillomavirus (HPV) infection alone gives more accurate results than pap testing. HPV is the most common sexually-transmitted virus in the United States. Nearly 80 million Americans are infected with HPV, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Infection with just two HPV genotypes is responsible for about 70 percent of all invasive cervical cancers worldwide, the National Cancer Institute says.
Researchers say the HPV test provides a more accurate picture of the cells in a woman’s cervix. The pap test involves a technician examining a swab of cervical cells under a microscope. If those cells appear abnormal, additional testing is involved. On the other hand, the HPV test uses a machine to detect the presence of two specific strains known to cause cancer.
Current cervical cancer guidelines call for women to receive a pap test beginning at age 21. Physicians have the option of adding the HPV test for women between 30 and 65 years of age. The research outlined in Gynecologic Oncology calls for a pap test to continue as the first-line of screening for women under the age of 25, but for a new HPV-only test to be given to women once they turn 25. It may be a while, however, until these guidelines are implemented in the exam room since further approval is needed.
Guidelines are ever-evolving, and are sharpening our standards for cancer detection and helping women lead healthier and longer lives. It can be confusing for most individuals when new guidelines are released, not to mention the announcement that a proven detection tool may soon be replaced. However, women should focus on what matters – get screened for cervical cancer regardless of what strategy is used.
Each year, about 12,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer in the United States and about 4,000 of them die from it. Research has shown that more than half of new cases of cervical cancer are in women who have never, or rarely ever, been screened. Right now, 8 million women in the United States between ages 21 and 65 years of age have not been screened for cervical cancer in the past five years, the CDC says.
Today, we have the power to not only detect cervical cancer earlier, but to prevent it from ever developing. The HPV vaccine provides nearly 100 percent protection against pre-cancers, and has cut the number of girls infected with HPV in half since it was first introduced in 2006. It’s not every day that we can offer such an amazing line of defense against cancer.
Neil Salas, MD, is an OB/Gyn physician with Premier Health Specialists who practices at Upper Valley Women’s Center in Troy.