VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – The results of a decade’s worth of research on human papillomavirus (HPV) screening could eventually mean fewer pap smears for women.
According to this study, the screening test is actually better at detecting the virus and ultimately preventing cervical cancer.
“As you know, all women of reproductive age need to be screened for cervical cancer…because screening can detect abnormal cells of the cervix early, and then we can treat them early, which would then, of course, prevent cancer from developing,” she explains, adding this study focused on the kind of technology used to screen for the virus.
“We compared the existing technology, which is a Pap test, which most women know about and we compared the effectiveness of Pap test for detecting pre-cancerous lesions compared to using a test for HPV.”
She says the study was launched because they learned that cervical cancer is “almost exclusively caused” by HPV. If HPV is the cause of that kind of cancer, why not screen for the virus instead of cancer?
“We randomized women [in B.C.] to one of two arms: one arm they got their regular Pap test, the other arm they got the HPV test. What we found after a decade was women who received the HPV test were more likely to have the pre-cancerous lesions detected earlier… and then by 48 months, women in the HPV arm were significantly less likely to have a pre-cancerous lesion compared to women who were in the pap testing arm.”
Ogilvie says another important finding was women who had a negative HPV test at the beginning of the study, compared to those in the pap test arm, were less likely to abnormal cells four years down the road.
“What does that mean? That means the HPV test offers more reassurance to women when it’s negative, [doctors] have greater confidence that a negative test truly is negative and those women won’t develop a pre-cancerous lesion in the next four years.”
The results of the study are being handed over to the agencies that decide testing and screening recommendations for doctors, but Ogilvie says this could mean a few changes in the future of your next physical.
The pelvic exam will feel the same for the most part, but women could end up being able to go longer than the current three years between checks.
“We have greater confidence in a negative HPV test so our anticipation is that if agencies and jurisdictions use HPV testing or move to HPV testing that can actually extend the screening interval..it might be every four years or maybe even longer because of the real ability of that test to offer assurance for a negative test.”
And while her study didn’t look at this specific option, Ogilvie says there will likely be an opportunity in the future for women to do their own HPV screening at home with a kit they send into the lab themselves.
“But that’s going to ultimately be up to those entities…to make those decisions and recommendations.”