Women now have the option of getting screened every three or five years for cervical cancer, depending on which type of test they use, according to new draft recommendations from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.
The group of independent medical experts is recommending that women 21 to 29 years old get a cervical cytology (PAP test) every three years, while women aged 30 to 65 should either continue to get screened with a Pap every three years, or opt to be tested for the high-risk human papillomavirus (HPV) every five years.
“Cervical cancer is highly curable when found and treated early,” task force member Carol Mangione, MD, MSPH, said in a release on Monday. “Most cases of cervical cancer occur in women who have not been regularly screened or treated. Therefore, making sure all women are adequately screened and treated is critical to reducing deaths from cervical cancer.”
Despite the dramatic reduction of cervical cancer by half since the Pap test was introduced 40 years ago, nearly 13,000 American women are expected to contract this type of cancer this year. Of those, 4,200 are likely to die, according to the American Cancer Society. African-American and Hispanic women are at even greater risk.
The task force is an independent, volunteer panel of national experts in prevention and evidence-based medicine whose recommendations are widely followed by physicians and policymakers. They assign each recommendation a letter grade based on the strength of the evidence — and this recommendation comes with an A.
“We now have two effective screening strategies for women over 30, either cervical cytology every three years or HPV testing every five years,” said Douglas K. Owens, vice-chairperson of the task force.
Owens, a physician, professor of Stanford Medicine and director of the Center for Health Policy and Center for Primary Care and Outcomes Research, said that in women ages 21 to 29, a substantial portion of HPV infections resolve on their own. Cervical cytology, or Pap tests, remains the recommended screening strategy in this age group.
The advisory panel recommended against screening in women younger than 21 and older than age 65 years who have been adequately screened and don’t have a history of high-risk lesions.
The task force emphasized that cervical cytology tests remain an effective method of screening for cervical cancer, but that evidence published since its 2012 found that both Pap tests and HPV testing alone are effective ways to screen for cervical cancer in women aged 30 to 65.
“So women should discuss with their health-care provider which testing strategy is best for them,” Owens said. “What’s most important is that women get screened regularly.”
The Food and Drug Administration in 2011 approved the first test for HPV screening, a DNA test that looks for 14 types of the HPV virus, including types 16 and 18, which cause about 70 percent of all cervical cancers. In 2014, the FDA determined that the HPV test could be used alone instead of alongside the Pap test, which looks for changes in cervical cells.
The task force’s draft recommendation and evidence review have been posted for public comment on its website. Public comments can be submitted through October 9.