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Friday, September 10, 1999 Published at 13:27 GMT 14:27 UK


Pressure builds for cervical cancer test

The smear test is the current way of screening for cancer

Another study showing the effectiveness of a new way to screen women for cervical cancer is fuelling demands for it to be given to UK women.

The Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is believed to be responsible for the vast majority of cases of cervical cancer, a disease that kills more than 10,000 women a year in this country.

At the moment women are screened for the disease from the age of 20 with the smear test, in which a sample of cells taken from the cervix are checked with a microscope for signs of abnormal cell growth.

[ image: HPV testing found more cancers, according to the study]
HPV testing found more cancers, according to the study
A test which can detect the majority of women carrying the HPV virus is available, but many experts still have reservations, as many women who have the virus never go on to develop cervical cancer.

The latest study, funded by the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, focused on women over the age of 35, who are more likely to develop the disease than younger women.

Just under 3,000 women were given an HPV test alongside their standard smear test.

Nearly all cancers detected

The HPV test detected 95% of the women who had "high grade lesions", that is, fully developed cervical cancer as opposed to pre-cancerous cells.

This is a better detection rate than standard smear testing.

Additionally, the level of "false positives" , or women who are told they may have a problem when in fact they do not, had dropped from 18% to 2% with the introduction of a new, more sensitive HPV test.

Professor Jack Cusick, who led the study, said the evidence suggested that women who have the HPV virus in their bodies over a sustained period are at risk of developing cervical cancer.

Women over 35 are more likely to have the infection, whereas in women in their 20s, the virus often disappears on its own.

He said: "In younger women, most of the HPV infections are short-lived and don't lead to disease, which means that HPV testing in this group can lead to a high false positive rate.

"The results of this study suggest that the introduction of this test as an addition to smear testing would be beneficial."

Combined test

He suggested that combining the test with the smear test for older women could save the NHS cervical screening programme millions, as it could reduce the frequency that women would have to be tested.

In addition, he said, it was possible that some HPV tests could be carried out at home, saving even more money.

"The current technology of the smear test is 50 years old and needs updating. This test could cause a revolution in the cervical screening programme."

A spokeswoman for a pressure group called "Women for HPV Testing" said: "There is now substantial clinical evidence to prove that HPV testing has a significant role to play in the UK national cervical screening programme.

"We hope it will help to convince the Department of Health that it should be introduced."

A review of all the evidence for the test is due to be presented to the Government in the next few weeks.

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25 Aug 99 | Medical notes
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Imperial Cancer Research Fund

British Journal of Cancer

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