London: Thousands of women will annually be spared from repeated smear tests by checking for the virus that causes cervical cancer at the same time, a new British
pilot study has indicated.
In the pilot study, testing for cancer-causing strains ofthe human pappilomavirus (HPV) at the initial smear resulted in a third of women (35 per cent) with low-grade cervical cell
abnormalities being sent home, as they did not carry them.
The other two-thirds were fast-tracked to a more detailed procedure to check the cervix for signs of cancer, called a colposcopy, rather than having to undergo repeated smear tests to check the initial result.
The findings were based on results from more than 10,000 women whose first smear test had shown low-grade ("mild" or "borderline") cellular abnormalities in the cervix, the Daily Telegraph reported.
Generally, women with mild or borderline abnormalities at the initial smear test are asked to have the procedure again, to check if the first result was just random noise or a
potential early-warning sign of cervical cancer.
The new programme is estimated to save 4,500 lives every year in England. However, there are still about 2,800 cases of cervical cancer a year and almost 1,000 deaths.
The new method of "triage" only changes things for those with mild or borderline abnormalities.
Study author Dr Sue Moss, of the Institute for Cancer Research in Sutton, Surrey, said: "Our study shows that adding HPV testing significantly reduces the number of women sent for more invasive tests, when in fact they do not have any serious cervical changes."
Prof Julietta Patnick, director of the NHS Cancer Screening Programmes, said she and her colleagues were "very pleased" with the study`s results, published in the British Journal of Cancer.
She said: "The use of HPV testing that this paper reports is currently being incorporated into the screening programme nationwide and will be fully rolled out within the next year.
"By incorporating HPV testing into our current screening programme in this way, we will be able to significantly reduce the number of repeat cytology tests required and to target our colposcopy services more effectively.
"This is an important development in our programme enabling us to screen women more effectively and efficiently, reducing unnecessary procedures and minimising any associated anxiety."
HPV, transmitted by sexual contact, is endemic in the adult population. Up to eight in 10 people will be infected with it at some point in their lives.
For most the virus causes no problems, and clears up on its own, but different strains can cause cervical cancer and genital warts.