Less regular cervical screening could benefit women, study suggests

In collaboration with the Press Association
An illustration of the human papillomavirus (HPV)

Extending the gap between cervical screening tests from five to 10 years is safe for women who test negative for the human papillomavirus (HPV), according to Dutch research

“This study is important because it helps measure how effective different screening approaches are" - Dr Jana Witt, Cancer Research UK

The study, published in The BMJ, says that in over 40s who test negative for the virus, screening every 10 years offers just as much protection against cervical cancer as screening for abnormal cells every five years. 

But for women who test positive for HPV, more regular screenings are recommended. 

Dr Jana Witt, health information officer at Cancer Research UK, said: “This study is important because it helps measure how effective different screening approaches are. And the findings will be useful in any future decisions about how often women should be screened. 

“But for now, there are no plans to change how often women are invited for screening in the UK.” 

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From 2017, the gap between tests for HPV negative women aged 40 and above in the Netherlands will be increased from five to 10 years. And this research provides evidence that this new approach is safe.

In the UK, women aged between 25 and 49 are invited for screening every three years - and then up to the age of 64, every five years. At the moment testing is done by looking for abnormal cervical cells first, and then testing for HPV if any abnormal cells are found.

Dr Witt added: “The National Screening Committee has already recommended that the order of the cervical screening tests be switched, so samples are tested for HPV first. 

“This simple switch will make the programme even more effective, and the Department of Health recently committed to making this change in the coming years. 

“It’s important to remember that whatever your screening history, always tell your doctor if you notice any unusual changes to your body such as bleeding between periods, during sex or after the menopause.”

Although the time between cervical screening tests won’t change in the UK for the time being, it may do in future because HPV testing has been shown to reduce the risk of cervical cell changes for longer than the current way of screening. 

Witt added that this “would be a positive change, as it would mean women wouldn’t need to attend screening as often while getting the same or an even better level of protection”. 

The Dutch team said that using HPV test results and age to define the time between screening appointments is a first step towards tailored screenings for individuals. It’s hoped this will improve efficiency and provide optimal prevention for all women.

References

  • ​Dijkstra, M., et al. (2016). Safety of extending screening intervals beyond five years in cervical screening programmes with testing for high risk human papillomavirus: 14 year follow-up of population based randomised cohort in the Netherlands. BMJ. DOI: 10.1136/bmj.i4924