News story

Changes to cervical cancer screening

Screening samples will now be tested for human papilloma virus (HPV) first, helping to prevent cervical cancer.

The process of cervical screening is to be changed to allow women to benefit from more accurate tests. After a successful pilot programme and a recommendation by the UK National Screening Committee, screening samples will be tested for human papilloma virus (HPV) first. This will be rolled out across England as the primary screening test for cervical disease.

Current testing process

At the moment, cervical screening samples are first tested using the cytology test. The sample is examined for abnormal cells that could go on to develop into cancer. However, the cytology test leaves room for abnormal cells to be missed, as they sometimes look similar to normal cells. Normal cells can also be misdiagnosed as abnormal.

Testing for (HPV is used as a secondary measure for samples needing further investigation. Women with mild or borderline cytology results are tested for HPV and if negative are returned to the routine screening programme. Women who are HPV positive are referred for a colposcopy, a medical examination of the cervix.

New testing process

In the new process, the sample will be tested for HPV first.

The majority (99.7%) of cervical cancers are 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. If no HPV is present the test also minimises over-treatment and anxiety for women.

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 among women.

Cervical screening currently saves 4,500 lives a year, and this new test will ensure the early signs are spotted and treated earlier.

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.

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.

Women aged 25 to 49 are invited for cervical screening every 3 years and from 50 to 64 every 5 years. You can read more about cervical screening on the NHS Choices website.