Women who have the HPV vaccine may only need three smear tests in their lifetime

According to new research

By Becky Fletcher

Women who have been vaccinated against the human papilloma virus (HPV) may only need three smear tests – aged 30, 40 and 55 – according to a new study.

The news coincides with planned changes for the English screenings in 2019 (and similar planned adjustments in Scotland and Wales), where the tests will check for HPV first – and only check for abnormal cells if they detect the virus.

What is HPV?

HPV is an extremely common virus. One of its major characteristics is that it likes to establish itself in cells called ‘keratinocytes’, which are found in human skin and also in internal mucous membranes, such as those of the cervix, the anus and the throat. There isn’t just one kind of human papilloma virus. At the present time, there are known to be at least 120 different types. Each of them has been given a number by virologists. Some of them are fairly harmless, and cause human beings little or no bother. Others just cause skin warts. But about 40 types can be transmitted through sexual contact, and therefore infect the vaginal region, or the anus or the throat. It’s important to note that one type of HPV does not turn into another.

The Queen Mary University researchers found that three screenings would offer the same benefit to women who have had the HPV jab to the currently recommended 12 cervical smear tests. They add that when the new screening changes come in to effect, unvaccinated women may only need seven smear tests.

Talking about vaccinated women, Prof Peter Sasieni, the study’s lead author said:

“These women are far less likely to develop cervical cancer so they don’t need such stringent routine checking as those at a higher risk… This decision would free up resources for where they are needed most. The change in the screening system is a unique opportunity to reassess how often women are invited for cervical screens during their lifetimes.”

While Dr Julie Sharp, head of health information at Cancer Research UK explained that this study was “great news” for women, she urged that it’s business as usual and women should still continue to take up invitations for screening until improvements to the tests are implemented.

The study was published in the International Journal of Cancer and funded by Cancer Research UK.

 

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