Cervical screening is to be changed with women now to be tested for human papilloma virus (HPV) first, in order to make the process more accurate.
The new system of screening samples is to be rolled out across England, after a successful pilot programme and a recommendation by the UK National Screening Committee.
“These changes are a breakthrough in the way we test women for cervical disease”
The move to HPV as the primary screening test for cervical disease over the current cytology test was hailed as a “huge step forward” by the country’s largest cancer charity.
Announcing the change, the Department of Health noted that the cytology test left room for abnormal cells to be missed, because they sometimes looked similar to normal cells, while normal cells could also be misdiagnosed as abnormal.
Until now, testing for HPV has been used as a secondary measure for samples needing further investigation.
Women with mild or borderline cytology results are tested for HPV and those who are positive then referred for a colposcopy.
The DH highlighted that 99.7% of cervical cancers were caused by persistent HPV infection, which causes changes to the cervical cells.
If HPV is found it is a useful guide as to whether abnormal cells are present. Women can then be monitored more closely and any developing abnormal cells found sooner, said the DH.
If no HPV is present the test also minimises over-treatment and anxiety for women, it added.
Announcing the move, public health minister Jane Ellison said: “These changes are a breakthrough in the way we test women for cervical disease. The new test is more accurate, more personal and will reduce anxiety.
“Cervical screening currently saves 4,500 lives a year, and this new test will ensure the early signs are spotted and treated earlier,” she added.
The new testing process could prevent around 600 cancers a year, according to Cancer Research UK.
Sir Harpal Kumar, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said: “It’s a huge step forward that the government is now introducing the HPV test to improve cervical screening.
“Testing first for the human papilloma virus will help prevent more cervical cancers, as it can pick up the cancer-causing infection before any abnormalities can develop in the cells,” he said.
He added: “The need for improvements to the cervical screening programme was set out in the cancer strategy for England last year, so it’s good to see progress being made.”
Under the cervical screening programme, women aged 25 to 49 are invited for cervical screening every three years and from 50 to 64 every five years.