Women will now be tested for the human papilloma virus (HPV) first as part of screening for cervical cancer before a cytology test.
Currently, cervical screening samples are examined for abnormal cells that could develop into cancer. However, the cytology test leaves room for abnormal cells to be missed, as they sometimes look similar to normal cells, leading to misdiagnosis.
‘These changes are a breakthrough in the way we test women for cervical disease. The new test is more accurate, more personal and will reduce anxiety among women,’ said Jane Ellison, the public health minister. ‘Cervical screening currently saves 4500 lives a year, and this new test will ensure the early signs are spotted and treated earlier.’
The change has been made to improve accuracy as 99.7% of cervical cancers are caused by persistent HPV infection, which causes changes to the cervical cells. If HPV is found it is an indication of the presence of abnormal cells. PHE said this means that women can then be monitored more closely and any developing abnormal cells found sooner. If no HPV is present, the test also minimises anxiety for women by reducing the rates of over-diagnosis.
‘It’s a huge step forward that the government is now introducing the HPV test to improve cervical screening. Testing first for the human papilloma virus will help prevent more cervical cancers, as it can pick up the cancer-causing infection before any abnormalities can develop in the cell,’ said Harpal Kumar, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive. ‘The need for improvements to the cervical screening programme was set out in the cancer strategy for England last year, so it’s good to see progress being made.’
The new screening test will be rolled out across England over the next year, after a successful pilot programme and a recommendation by the UK National Screening Committee.