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Behind the headlines: What is HPV testing all about?

Posted on: Friday, 11th August 2017 by Kate Sanger, Head of Communications and Public Affairs

HPV has been hitting the news over the last few months, most recently today as the NHS in Scotland has announced that it will be introducing HPV testing as the primary method for cervical screening from 2019. This is extremely positive and means that soon every woman in the UK will be able to benefit from this more effective test.

So what is HPV testing all about?

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is an extremely common infection that is spread through skin-to-skin contact. Almost all cervical cancers are caused by infection with high risk HPV, which can sometimes cause abnormal cells to develop in the cervix. In the majority of cases, these abnormal cells will go away without the need for treatment. However, sometimes they can become cancerous. This is why cervical screening is so important as it can detect and treat the cells before they reach that stage.

The current cervical screening programme uses cytology first, which looks at the sample of cells collected from a smear test to see if abnormal cells are present. If they are, the sample is tested for HPV to see if there is a need for further investigation through a colposcopy or treatment. This is a very effective test that prevents up to 75% of cervical cancers from developing.

However, testing the sample for HPV first has been shown  to be a much more effective and reliable test. In the new programme, samples will be tested for HPV first. If a woman does not have HPV, then their risk of cervical cancer is extremely low and no further investigation is needed. If they do have HPV, then their sample will be analysed for any abnormal cells and treatment offered if needed. If there are no abnormal cells, they will be monitored more closely until the infection has gone away. This means women at a higher risk of cervical cancer will be detected earlier. Research has shown that around 600 extra cases of cervical cancer will be prevented every year when the new test is in place and there will be greater accuracy.

Find out more about the different types of HPV testing.

Why are women not tested for HPV first already?

Well, it is a big change to the screening programme so it is essential that the systems in place are set up correctly ahead of the change. This means changes to laboratories, to databases and, most importantly, ensuring that the correct information and support is ready for women in the screening programme. We know from our research that many women don't understand the link between HPV and cervical cancer or what having HPV means, we need to make sure women understand the changes so they are fully informed about their health and what the different outcomes may be.

Some parts of the UK are already using the new test, to ensure the screening programme is fully prepared to roll out the programme across the rest of the UK.

What happens now?

Well we have a few years to wait while the different screening programmes across the UK prepare for HPV testing. Cervical screening currently provides the best protection against cervical cancer, so it is really important that women continue to take up their invitation. In England alone, attendance is at a 19 year low and this is a worry. Being aware of the symptoms of cervical cancer is also important. Not sure what they are? Take two minutes to refresh yourself of the symptoms.

Further questions? As always we’re here, so if you want to find out more about HPV, what having HPV means and about any aspect of screening then do get in touch.