Women may only need three cervical screens in their lifetime if they have been given the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, according to UK researchers.
The team from Queen Mary University of London found that three screens at 30, 40 and 55 would offer the same benefit to vaccinated women as the 12 lifetime screens currently offered in England.
“These women are far less likely to develop cervical cancer so they don’t need such stringent routine checking”
At present, NHS cervical screening programmes invite women aged 25 to 64 for screening. Women aged 25 to 49 are invited every three years. After that, they are invited every five years until 64.
But since 2008, the HPV vaccine has been offered to UK schoolgirls aged 11-13. The current vaccine Gardasil protects against HPV 6, 11, 16 and 18 which are responsible for 70% of all cervical cancer.
The researchers highlighted that the initial cohort vaccinated under the immunisation programme was now reaching the age of their first cervical screening invite.
Their new study suggested these women could still be effectively protected from cancer with fewer smear tests, following both HPV vaccination and the introduction of improved screening.
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Source: Photohound/Jan Christian
A new programme called HPV primary testing is set to be introduced in England by December 2019. Scotland and Wales are also preparing their own plans to introduce this new HPV test.
It means that cervical samples are tested for HPV but only checked for abnormal cells if the virus is found. The current test checks for abnormalities first, which is less efficient, noted the researchers.
The new study is based on predictions of how the vaccine and screening will work best together. Using a computer model, it looked at cancer incidence and the protection given by the vaccine.
As the risk of cervical cancer is considerably reduced, the study suggested that the number of screens should be decreased accordingly, avoiding unnecessary procedures for women.
The study also suggested that unvaccinated women should only need seven lifetime screens when the new screening test comes in, five fewer than is currently standard.
The findings from the Cancer Research UK-funded study have been published today in the International Journal of Cancer.
“The change in the screening system is a unique opportunity”
Lead study author Professor Peter Sasieni said: “The NHS should benefit from the investment that it’s made by introducing the vaccination programme.
“These women are far less likely to develop cervical cancer so they don’t need such stringent routine checking as those at a higher risk,” he said. “This decision would free up resources for where they are needed most.
“The change in the screening system is a unique opportunity to reassess how often women are invited for cervical screens during their lifetimes,” he added.
Dr Julie Sharp, head of health information at Cancer Research UK said: “This is great news for women. The cervical screening programme is already very successful, and has led to a dramatic fall in deaths from the disease since its introduction.
“While we hope to see these improvements to the screening programme in the future, it’s important that women continue to take up invitations for cervical screening,” she noted.