According to new research published today in the British Journal of Cancer, performing the human papillomavirus (HPV) test twice with a short interval between tests would reduce the number of women having unnecessary treatment.

The Swedish study also indicates that women, who do not respond to screening invitations, could take a HPV test at home and therefore increase the number of women screened for cervical cancer.

The Research assessed approximately 2,800 women who took a self-sample HPV test at home and invited those showing a positive result to a clinic for a repeat HPV test one to three months after the initial test, to examine patients for a persistent HPV infection, which could lead to cell changes of the cervix.

Women, who’s second test also proved positive, had an increased likelihood of developing abnormal cell changes on the cervical lining which could become cancerous. Treating these changes can prevent the development of cervical cancer.

Although most HPV-infected women do not develop cervical cancer, the virus is nevertheless a major cause of the disease. Researchers recommend that testing twice for HPV would mean that fewer women would be unnecessarily called for further investigations.

The results revealed, that of 188 women who tested positive in the first HPV test, only 44 women (23 per cent) actually showed moderate cervical changes or worse on further examination. At the second test, 88 of the 188 women tested still showed an HPV infection with 36 women (41 percent) developing moderate cervical changes or worse.

“This study confirms previous evidence that repeating the HPV test reduces the number of women who are sent for other more invasive tests – when in fact they do not have any serious cervical changes on further examination,” said Professor Ulf Gyllensten, leading author of the study based at the Uppsala University Hospital in Sweden. He continued, “This still works if women are able to do the first test at home, which can help overcome some of the emotional and physical barriers to cervical screening.”

The HPV test has been introduced as part of the existing NHS cervical screening program in the UK since April, in which those with mild or borderline changes from the current screening test (liquid-based cytology, often called the smear test) receive HPV testing and will only undergo further procedures if the test is positive.

The risk of developing cervical cancer is highly unlikely in women with mild or borderline cell changes who do not have an HPV, so can safely continue with normal screening. Those with cell changes and an HPV infection may require further investigation or treatment.

According to Sara Hiom, Director of health information at the Cancer Research UK:

“the study provides valuable additional data which can help inform improvements in the cervical screening program in future – especially when screening will be increasingly taken up by women who have been vaccinated against HPV. It’s important that we reduce the number of women going through unnecessary procedures so that we can minimize any associated anxiety, and also make colposcopy services and screening more efficient.”

She concluded by saying:

“Cervical screening is a great way of preventing cervical cancer from developing in the first place, by diagnosing and treating changes in the cells that could become cancer if left alone. It saves thousands of lives in the UK every year, so Cancer Research UK encourages women to take up screening when invited.”

Written by Petra Rattue