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Study: 8-year interval between HPV tests for cervical cancer may be safe, effective

By Dennis Thompson, HealthDay News
Current standards require women to undergo human papillomavirus (HPV) screening every five years. But researchers found that waiting eight years for follow-up HPV screening after a woman test negative for the virus is safe and effective. Photo by Adobe Stock/HealthDay News
Current standards require women to undergo human papillomavirus (HPV) screening every five years. But researchers found that waiting eight years for follow-up HPV screening after a woman test negative for the virus is safe and effective. Photo by Adobe Stock/HealthDay News

HPV testing to prevent cervical cancer might not have to happen as often as currently recommended, a new study says.

Current standards require women to undergo human papillomavirus (HPV) screening every five years. Nearly all cervical cancers are caused by HPV.

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But researchers found that waiting eight years for follow-up HPV screening after a woman test negative for the virus is safe and effective.

The safety of an eight-year interval is the same as that of the standard three-year interval between a Pap smear, researchers report.

"These findings should provide assurance that the five-year interval recommended for HPV screening is even safer than the three-year interval for cytology [Pap] screening," said researcher Anna Gottschlich, an assistant professor at Wayne State School of Medicine, in Michigan.

During the past two decades, the United States has been transitioning from Pap smears to HPV-based screening for cervical cancer, researchers said in background notes.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force currently recommends that women routinely get a Pap smear every three years, HPV screening every five years, or combined Pap and HPV screening every five years.

Each year, about 11,500 U.S. women are diagnosed with cervical cancer and about 4,000 women die from it, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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But these advanced screening methods have led the World Health Organization to call for the global elimination of cervical cancer by 2030, researchers said.

For the study, researchers analyzed data from a Canadian HPV screening trial conducted between January 2008 and December 2016, with an average 14-year follow up.

They found that the risk of women developing a precancerous lesion of the cervix was 3.2 cases per 1,000 within eight years of a single negative HPV test, and 2.7 per 1,000 within eight years of two negative HPV tests.

That was similar to women's three-year risk following a single negative Pap test (3.3 per 1,000) or two negative Pap tests (2.5 per 1,000), researchers noted.

After six years -- a year longer than current five-year guidelines -- HPV screens showed lower risk after one (2.5 per 1,000) and two (2.3 per 1,000) negative tests.

The findings were published Tuesday in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention.

"HPV screening performs better than [Pap smears] by detecting more precancer earlier, which can then be treated earlier," Gottschlich said in a journal news release. "We saw that in our study population, even those who had only one negative HPV test were at very low risk for the development of cervical precancer for many years after the negative test."

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These results might lead to changes in screening guidelines, but that depends on each country and their specific population, Gottschlich noted.

For example, countries will need to make sure that their health systems are good at following up with patients, as a longer screening interval means that some will forget they are due for their next check-up, the researchers noted.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on cervical cancer screening.

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