Dec. 15, 2011 -- A test that looks for the virus that causes most cases of cervical cancer may be the best way to screen women over age 30 for the disease, a new study shows.
The study followed 45,000 women ages 29 to 56 in the Netherlands who were split into two groups. The first group got a traditional Pap test to look for cervical cancer. The second group got a Pap test along with a newer test for human papillomavirus (HPV). Studies have shown that HPV causes more than 90% of all cervical cancers.
Five years after they were first screened, all women were rescreened using both Pap and HPV tests.
In the first round of testing, HPV tests detected significantly more precancerous changes to cervical cells than Pap testing alone.
Because doctors caught and treated those changes sooner, women who initially got HPV tests were less likely to have full-blown cervical cancer when they were tested again five years later compared to women who got Pap tests alone.
The study found that women who got an initial HPV test had about a 27% reduced risk of having advanced precancerous lesions five years later compared to women who had a Pap test alone.
They were also less likely to have cervical cancer. There were 14 cases of cancer found in the group that only got a Pap test at the start of the study compared to four cases in the women who also got an HPV test.
What's more, the numbers of high-grade precancerous lesions found over time in the study didn't significantly differ between the two groups. Experts say that suggests that adding HPV testing didn't pick up infections that would have likely cleared on their own. That should eliminate any worry that HPV testing would lead to overtreatment, they contend.