It’s one of the most dreaded-yet-necessary chores to complete every three years for women between the ages of 30 and 65 — the Pap smear. But according to a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, a new HPV test could replace the loathsome Pap, currently the most common form of cervical cancer screening.
The new human papillomavirus (HPV) test was first approved by the FDA back in 2014, according to NPR.org. Rather than collecting cells from the back of the cervix, as a Pap smear does, the HPV test only requires vaginal and cervical secretions, which can be collected with a simple vaginal swab, to detect possible abnormalities. Because 99% of cervical cancer is caused by HPV, this new test could be the future for cervical cancer screenings for some women.
A new study released July 3rd, called the HPV FOCAL trial, compared the HPV test to the Pap smear in a group of 19,000 Canadian women and found that in many cases, the HPV test detected abnormal cells earlier than the Pap. To conduct the study, some women received the HPV test and the others had Pap smears. Women who tested negative in the Pap group were re-tested two years later, and the whole group was given both tests after four years.
NPR notes that neither method was completely foolproof. There were some women in both groups who initially tested negative for abnormalities during the first round of screening, and ended up testing positive for abnormal cervical cells at the end of the study.
But surprisingly, more women who had the Pap smear ended up testing positive for abnormal cells at the end of the study than the women who had the HPV test, meaning that the HPV test was able to detect abnormal cells earlier than the Pap.
"What our study shows is that by using HPV testing, we detect precancerous lesions earlier," lead author Dr. Gina Ogilvie told NPR. "If women have a negative HPV test, they are significantly less likely to have a precancerous lesion four years later, meaning we can extend screening time."
With these findings, medical professionals are now grappling with the idea of using the HPV test only, since co-testing — using both Paps and HPV tests simultaneously to screen women for abnormal cervical cells — is currently the gold standard. Co-testing is thorough, but it can increase false-positive rates, and critics note that false positives can lead to unnecessary biopsies, which can cause bleeding and infection.
Until guidelines change, it’s important for all women – ages 21 and up — to continue getting Pap smears as recommended by their doctors. But women over 30 could be headed toward a much less painful future.