New cervical cancer screening test could slash the number of women diagnosed – here’s what it entails

New cervical cancer screening test could slash the number of women diagnosed – here’s what it entails
The number of women diagnosed with cervical cancer each year could be slashed by a fifth thanks to the introduction of a new screening test, research suggests (Photo: Shutterstock)

The number of women diagnosed with cervical cancer each year could be slashed by a fifth thanks to the introduction of a new screening test, research suggests.

For women under 35, the most common type of cancer is cervical cancer with 2,500 diagnoses in England each year – a figure which could be slashed by 400 to 500 cases with a more accurate test.

A further 300 women are diagnosed annually in Scotland, as well as 160 in Wales and 80 in Northern Ireland.

A more accurate system

The new screening regime being rolled out across the NHS was found to be much more accurate than current smear tests in detecting abnormal changes to cells which could lead to cervical cancer.

This means that women who are known to be at low risk of cervical cancer could safely have a screening every five years instead of every three, research found.

The study, published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), examined a new NHS system, which sees cervical samples initially tested for human papilloma virus (HPV) – an infection spread through close skin-to-skin contact, usually during sex or oral sex.

HPV causes nearly all cases of cervical cancer and can also cause cancers in other genital areas, such as the vagina, vulva, penis and anus.

Detecting cases early

Regular cervical screening can prevent up to 75 per cent of cervical cancer cases, saving an estimated 5,000 lives per year, according to Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust.

This is partly through identifying the disease early enough to be treated, and partly through picking up and treating abnormalities in cells before the cancer can develop.

Currently, cervical screening samples and examined and those that show possible changes to cells are tested for HPV. However, this is now being switched around, with cells tested first for HPV infection, and only those which have the virus examined for abnormal cells.

An expected 20 per cent decrease in cases of pre-cancer

Researchers found the new method of screening with hrHPV testing picked up more cases of pre-cancerous lesions.

Researchers found the new method of screening with hrHPV testing picked up more cases of pre-cancerous lesions (Photo: Shutterstock)
Researchers found the new method of screening with hrHPV testing picked up more cases of pre-cancerous lesions (Photo: Shutterstock)

First testing for HPV enabled detection of 50 per cent more abnormal changes at grade 2 or worse and 40 per cent more at grade 3 or worse, plus 30 per cent more cases of cervical cancer.

The experts from a range of UK universities, hospitals and Public Health England, concluded, “Screening with hrHPV testing would translate to 400-500 fewer cases, or an about 20 per cent decrease in the overall incidence, once hrHPV screening is rolled out nationally.”

Researchers examined data for 578,547 women aged 24 to 64 undergoing cervical screening between May 2013 and December 2014, who were followed up until May 2017.

Lead epidimiological researcher Matejka Rebolj, from King’s College London, said the new regime would save lives in the future, although an exact figure for lives saved has not been calculated.

What happens at a cervical screening?

A cervical screening is a test to check the health of the cells of the cervix – it is not a test for cancer.

In most cases the test results show that everything is normal, although around one in 20 cases show some abnormal changes in the cells of the cervix. Detecting and removing these abnormal cells can prevent cervical cancer.

The test is free and all women aged 25 to 64 who are registered with a GP are automatically invited for the test, including women who have had the HPV vaccination.