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Cervical cancer screenings are about to get much easier

Women in the US aged 30 to 65 may soon have better access to screenings that can prevent a potentially-fatal cervical cancer diagnosis. 

New guidelines from an influential task force say women should be able to ask for a Pap smear every three years, rather than having to wait for five.

And they say women should also be given the option to have their Pap smear and HPV testing done separately, since ‘co-testing’ often results in false alarms, and could lead to extreme, unnecessary operations.

The guidelines announced today were recommended by the US Preventative Services Task Force (USPSTF), which usually influences insurance providers who follow their lead on which preventative screenings and medications to cover.

If insurance companies do comply, experts say women will soon be able to tailor their healthcare more to their specific needs.

An independent panel of healthcare experts has proposed that women should be able to choose between getting a Pap smear and and HPV test, both of which check women for cervical cancer

Cervical cancer has dropped dramatically over the past half-century thanks to Pap testing.

Still, this year an estimated 12,820 US women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer, and about 4,200 will die. Most haven’t been screened, or have gone too long between checks.

Doctors perform Pap smears by swabbing a woman’s cervix and then checking the cells they obtained for signs of cervical cancer.

HPV testing looks for high-risk strains of the human papillomavirus, the nation’s most common sexually transmitted infection.

Just about everyone will get at least one strain at some point in their lives, according to the CDC. But only certain strains cause cervical cancer – and only if they linger long enough in the body.


Women in their 30s and older need to discuss screening options with their health providers, according to Dr Jason Wright, gynecologic oncology expert at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center.

An HPV test can cost twice as much as a $40 Pap but it does not require screening as often.

Some data suggest HPV testing leads to more diagnoses of precancerous signs in women’s bodies, but an HPV test can spark more false alarms than a Pap, Dr Wright said.

Also, some follow-up tests can alter the cervix in ways that may affect future pregnancies.

This should be a consideration for women still interested in childbearing, according to Dr Carol Mangione, a member of the task force which published the new recommendations.

The older you get, the greater the chance that an HPV infection you have is the years-long, harmful kind.

To better catch those cases, ‘co-testing’ has become increasingly common for women 30 and over.

Co-testing consists of a combination of Pap smear and HPV test assessments.

If the results of both tests are negative, women can wait five years to get tested again.

But both Paps and HPV testing can trigger false alarms, prompting unneeded – and sometimes harmful – additional care to rule out cancer.

New studies show co-testing leads to more false alarms than either test alone, without adding benefit.

That spurred the USPSTF to change their guidelines and today they proposed to let women 30 and over choose an HPV test by itself every five years or a Pap every three years instead.

The USPSTF is an independent panel of experts who review available technologies that can prevent diseases and decide on recommendations for the proper use of them. 

The task force will leave this proposal open for the public to comment on until October 9, at which point their recommendations will be finalized and submitted to healthcare providers.