A test for the virus that causes cervical cancer can replace the annual Pap smear for many women, experts say.
The advisers to the Food and Drug Administration recommend that the agency allow the test’s maker to market it as a first-line screening tool for cervical cancer, which kills more than 3,000 U.S. women every year.
The test looks for evidence of human papillomavirus (HPV), which causes not only cervical cancer but cancer of the mouth, throat, penis and other areas. Women with evidence of active HPV infection could then be given a Pap test, which is examined for evidence of cancerous or precancerous cells.
“If approved, the cobas® HPV Test would become the first and only HPV test indicated as the first-line primary screen of cervical cancer in the United States,” Roche, the company that makes the test, said in a statement.
Researchers found in 2011 that for women 30 and over, an HPV test is better than a Pap smear for predicting cervical cancer risk, and those who test negative on both can safely wait three years to be screened again.
HPV is extremely common. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 20 million Americans are currently infected with HPV. Another 6 million people become newly infected each year. For most, the virus clears their system on its own, but at least 50 percent of sexually active men and women are infected at some point in their lives. Some estimates range as high as 80 percent.
Cervical cancer kills more than 3,870 women a year in the United States and 300,000 globally. There are two commercial vaccines — Merck’s Gardasil and its rival, GlaxoSmithKline’s Cervarix.
The Pap test can find evidence of cervical cancer, which is very slow-growing, before it even becomes truly cancer. Doctors can remove the damaged cells.
But most cases are caused by HPV, and studies suggest that an HPV test is more accurate than a Pap.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force says most women can go as long as five years between cervical cancer screenings as long as they make sure to get both a Pap smear and an HPV test when they do get examined.
First published March 13 2014, 12:33 PM
Maggie Fox is senior health writer for NBC News and TODAY, writing top news on health policy, medical treatments and disease.
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She's a former managing editor for healthcare and technology at National Journal and global health and science editor for Reuters based in Washington, D.C. and London.
She's reported for news agencies, radio, newspapers, magazines and television from across Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe covering news ranging from war to politics and, of course, health and science. Her reporting has taken Maggie to Lebanon, Syria and Libya; to China, South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines and Pakistan; to Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia and to Ireland and Northern Ireland and across the rest of Europe.
Maggie has won awards from the Society of Business Editors and Writers, the National Immunization Program, the Overseas Press Club and other organizations. She's done fellowships at Harvard Medical School, the National Institutes of Health and the University of Maryland.