The UK is about to change how they screen for cervical cancer. Clinics will begin to look for the presence of high-risk HPV as the primary test for cervical screening. The test will still be taken in the same way, so the process will be exactly the same for women. If the HPV virus is not identified, the smear part of the test will not be analysed.
We asked consultant gynaecologist, Mr Jullien Brady, why these changes are being made and how many women actually go to their first smear appointment.
Why are these changes being made?
When cervical screening for cancer was first introduced in the UK, no one fully understood that HPV was the primary cause. HPV testing is more accurate but still requires a smear test to identify women at risk, as the presence of the HPV infection may be only temporary and may not necessarily indicate that there is a problem. The smear test involves taking a small sample of cells from the cervix to check for the presence of abnormal cells.
What will happen now when women receive their results?
If smear test results are normal, the woman will continue to have routine screenings. Abnormal results will require a woman to attend for a colposcopy examination to identify and potentially monitor and treat any abnormal changes.
A colposcopy looks at the cervix using a device called a colposcope. It’s similar to a smear test but takes a little longer. A speculum is inserted into the vagina to visualise the cervix and sometimes a biopsy may be carried out where a small sample of tissue is taken to be analysed further.
What percentage of women invited for their smear actually attend?
Sadly over one million women in the UK have never had a smear test and one million women are more than 12 months late for their most recent test.
How could this be improved?
Many women find the actual process of having a smear done difficult for lots of reasons. One of the most exciting recent innovations by companies such as GynaeCheck (Check4Cancer) is the ability of a woman to self-sample for the HPV virus. This can be done in the privacy and comfort of her own home with no need for a speculum examination. As such, they can avoid the need for a traditional smear test on average nine times out of 10.
If you have any questions regarding cervical cancer screening or you’d like to make an appointment with Mr Brady, please head to his Top Doctors profile.