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Behind the Headlines - HPV primary screening in Northern Ireland

Posted on: Tuesday, 12th December 2023 by Hannah Wright, Policy and Public Affairs Officer

What’s changed?

The Public Health Agency in Northern Ireland have this week announced that the cervical screening programme have changed their test to HPV primary screening. This is really positive news and brings the screening programme in Northern Ireland in line with the rest of the UK. 

HPV primary screening is a way of testing the sample of cells taken during cervical screening. It is a more sensitive and effective test than cytology, which was the type of test used until recently. Cytology testing involved looking at the sample of cells collected at screening to see if cell changes are present. With HPV primary screening, your screening sample is first tested for high-risk HPV (human papillomavirus).

What is HPV?

HPV is a very common virus that lives on our skin. It is very easy to get and difficult to completely protect against. 8 in 10 of us get HPV at some point in our lives. There are over 200 types of HPV, with about 14 types linked to cancer known as high-risk HPV. More than 99% of cervical cancers are linked to high-risk HPV. 

For most people, their immune system will get rid of HPV without it causing any problems. For some people, HPV will remain in the body, and it can lead to cell changes in the cervix, which can develop into cancer over time.

Why has the test changed?

By testing for high-risk HPV, we can find out who is at a higher risk of developing cervical cell changes and cervical cancer. We can make sure that we monitor the virus and find any cell changes early, before they potentially develop in cervical cancer. HPV primary screening is also a more accurate test than cytology, which means it is better at detecting cell changes overall, as well as detecting them earlier. 

At Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, we have been campaigning for HPV primary screening to be available in Northern Ireland for several years, so we are really pleased about this change.

What does this mean for me?

Your experience of cervical screening won’t change, as the test will be done in the same way, and you will be invited for your next cervical screening test as normal. What might change is what happens when you receive your results.

If high-risk HPV is found, your sample will then be looked at for cell changes. If there are no cell changes, you will be invited back in 1 year to check if the HPV has cleared. If high-risk HPV and cell changes are found, you’ll be invited for further tests at colposcopy. Not all cell changes develop into cervical cancer, but it is important that they are monitored, and treated if needed. 

If you do not have high-risk HPV, your sample will not be looked at for cell changes. It is very unlikely you will develop cell changes or cervical cancer without having high-risk HPV. In Northern Ireland, you will be invited back for cervical screening in 3 or 5 years, depending on your age. 

Any questions? 

If you have any questions or concerns about HPV, cervical screening, test results, cell changes, colposcopy, or cervical cancer please do get in touch with us.