Human papillomavirus (HPV). Credit: Public domain image/Wikimedia Commons
The NHS cervical screening programme in England will switch to first testing women for signs of infection with the virus that causes cervical cancer, rather than initially looking for abnormal cells.
Public health minister, Jane Ellison, said that the change would allow women to benefit from more accurate tests.
Estimates suggest that initial testing for the human papillomavirus (HPV) could prevent around 600 extra cases of cervical cancer in England every year.
The move was welcomed by Cancer Research UK, with the charity’s chief executive Sir Harpal Kumar describing it as a “huge step forward” that will help save more lives.
HPV infection is common, and the virus can be contracted through close skin-to-skin contact, especially during sex. Up to 8 out of 10 people will be infected with the virus at some point in their lives, and infection usually clears up on its own.
But in a minority of women, certain types of the virus can cause persistent infections that can eventually trigger cervical cancer.
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HPV tests are currently only used in cervical screening after abnormal cells are spotted in a woman’s screening sample, to help decide whether further investigation is needed.
But research has shown that testing for HPV first is even better at preventing cervical cancer, by helping to find and treat early changes that could trigger the disease.
Sarah Williams, health information manager at Cancer Research UK, said that swapping the order of the tests “may sound minor”, but it would actually have a big impact.
“The simple change of which test comes first will have an important impact, making the cervical screening programme even more effective in the future,” she said.
“Testing for HPV first means more cervical cancers can be prevented, and more lives saved.”
The switch comes following a successful pilot programme. And while it won’t make a difference to what happens when women attend a cervical screening appointment, it will mean the sample is examined in a different way in the lab once the changes come into effect.
Ellison said that while current screening helps save around 4,500 lives from cervical cancer every year, the introduction of HPV testing first represented a “breakthrough” in the way women are tested.
Williams added that continued research into the effectiveness of screening programmes was vital.
“It’s important that we monitor screening programmes, and carry out research to make them even better. For example, research to help understand how HPV vaccination and cervical screening programmes can best work together to benefit women,” she said.
“Cervical screening is mainly intended to prevent cervical cancer, but can also pick up cases of the disease. Whatever your screening history, it’s important to tell your doctor if you notice any unusual changes to your body such as bleeding between periods, during sex or after the menopause,” she added.