HPV testing to be included in NHS cervical screening programme

In collaboration with Adfero

The inclusion of human papillomavirus (HPV) testing in the current NHS Cervical Screening Programme from April 2011 has been confirmed in the programme's annual review, which was published last Friday (January 7th).

The HPV test - which looks for the presence of certain high-risk strains of the human papillomavirus - will be offered to women with borderline or low-grade cervical abnormalities detected in the first round of cervical screening.

At present, women are screened for cervical cancer using a technique called liquid-based cytology. Cervical cells are collected and analysed for suspicious changes which could be the pre-cursors of cervical cancer. Women with a positive result from this test are referred for a more detailed examination of the cervix known as colposcopy followed by treatment if necessary. This process will remain unchanged.

Under the current system women with borderline changes are offered repeated tests with liquid-based cytology. Those with persistent borderline results are offered colposcopy.

Once HPV testing has been brought in, only those women with borderline changes who also test positive for HPV will be referred for this detailed examination.

This will reduce the number of women who undergo unnecessary procedures.

Professor Julietta Patnick, director of the NHS Cancer Screening Programmes, said: "By incorporating HPV testing into our current screening programme in this way, we will be able to significantly reduce the number of repeat cytology tests required and to target our colposcopy services more effectively.

"This is an important development in our programme, enabling us to screen women more effectively and efficiently, reducing unnecessary procedures and minimising any associated anxiety."

Care services minister Paul Burstow said that screening is "vital" for improving cancer outcomes and achieving world-leading survival rates.

"HPV triage is part of the continuing improvement and development of this world-class service, and will lead to a more patient-centred and efficient service," he claimed.

Dr Lesley Walker, Cancer Research UK's director of cancer information, said: "The announcement is most welcome as it will reduce unnecessary referrals. In the past, all women with persistent borderline changes in the cervix were referred for colposcopy. Now, only women who test positive for HPV will be referred.

"It is important to keep the role of HPV testing in the screening programme under review. Many experts believe that it should eventually replace cytology as the primary screening test."