Cervical cancer is often detected through Pap smears; after all, there is a correlation between human papillomavirus (HPV) infections and cervical cancer. But now, a study shows that a new HPV test showed promising results in finding precancerous cervical changes. And, not only that, but the test was more accurate than Pap smears at doing so. The research was conducted through a controlled study, and the results were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) on July 3.
“The findings from this study don’t surprise me at all,” Dr. Sherry A. Ross, women’s health expert and author of she-ology. The Definitive Guide to Women’s Intimate Health. Period., tells Bustle. “There is mounting evidence that HPV is the main reason women get pre-cancer and cancer cells on the cervix.” She believes that the Pap smear test is an antiquated and unreliable screening test for cervical cancer.
“This study further supports the direct connection to cervical cancer and HPV, the importance of both sexes getting vaccinated, and determining what the best screening test should be done to find those at risk,” Dr. Ross says.
HPV is usually transmitted through sexual contact. According to the World Health Organization, “HPV is the most common viral infection of the reproductive tract.” In addition, they say that most sexually active women and men will get HPV at some point. However, not all HPV types lead to cancer.
What HPV Really Is
HPV is a group of viruses with more than 100 different types. Of those, at least 13 are cancer-causing and known as high-risk types. Two types in particular, 16 and 18, are known for causing 70 percent of cervical cancers and precancerous cervical lesions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that nearly 80 million people — about one in four — are currently infected with HPV in the U.S.
“It is important to know the facts about HPV,” Dr. Michael Krychman, MD, OB/GYN, sexual medicine gynecologist and the executive director of the Southern California Center for Sexual Health and Survivorship Medicine and co-author of The Sexual Spark: 20 Essential Exercises to Reignite the Passion, tells Bustle. “HPV is spread through close contact of genital skin, primarily during penetration either vaginally or anally,” he says. However, penetration isn’t the only way it can be transmitted. So, it goes without saying that an HPV-specific test that can identify precancerous cervical changes would be a game-changer for women’s health.
While some people with HPV with get papillomas — also known as warts — not everyone will. In many cases, the body’s immune system gets rid of an HPV infection before warts appear, according to the Mayo Clinic. “It’s important to note that in most cases, an HPV infection is typically removed and or cleared by the body,” Dr. Krychman says. “But other HPV infections are chronic and some are persistent, so linking in with your medical professional will help ease your anxiety."
The average length of an HPV infection is between four and 20 months, according to the Foundation for Women's Cancer, and most people get rid of it within two years. However, not all HPV goes away on its own. Hence, getting tested regularly or precancerous cells is crucial.
How The Study Was Done
The study involved 19,000 women and was done over 10 years. One group of women received the HPV test to screen for cervical cancer while the other group had a Pap cytology test done, aka a liquid-based test versus a traditional Pap smear. As far as precancerous lesions, “significantly more cases” were found with the women in the HPV-tested group.
Forty-eight months after they were first screened, the women were tested with the Pap and HPV tests. Once again, the HPV test came out a winner, as there were fewer cases of precancer in that test group of women. According to lead author Gina Ogilvie, a physician and public health researcher at the University of British Columbia, this is attributed to the fact that cellular changes had already been found and dealt with. “The real benefit of co-testing is with the HPV test,” she said.
What The Study Means For Women’s Health
According to The Washington Post, many experts believe that the Pap smear could potentially be replaced with the HPV test. However, medical groups also said more clinical trial results would have to be seen first before Pap smears are eradicated.
“It’s exciting to see results of a well-powered randomized controlled trial on the topic of HPV, which may help simplify cervical cancer screening,” Dr. Shoma Datta, DT Gynecology: Aesthetics & Rejuvenation, tells Bustle. She says that, currently, standard practice according to the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force is to perform a Pap test every three years starting at age 21, with the option to co-test women age 30-65 with HPV and Pap testing every five years.
“We have been waiting to see results on HPV testing alone, which has been proposed in a draft from the U.S. Task Force,” Dr. Datta says. “This has been controversial because a small number of precancerous cases were found only when adding the Pap test to HPV screening — the significance of that small number is what is in question.”
However, Dr. Datta also states that, while this study looks at the accuracy of HPV testing, it does not make a direct comparison of primary HPV testing only versus current practices of co-testing with HPV plus Pap tests. “Due to its sensitivity, HPV testing alone may trigger more follow-up testing and procedures,” she says. “Furthermore, results beyond four years and cost-effectiveness is yet to be determined, which would be crucial not only in the U.S., but globally, where medical access limits cervical cancer screening. This news is likely a step toward delineating a role for effective primary HPV testing; however, we should not completely dismiss Pap smear testing at this time.”
As you can see, the HPV test study seems promising and could be revolutionary for women’s health.