(CBS SF) — A new method to screen for cervical cancer that would allow women to skip the much-dreaded Pap smear has not yet gained universal acceptance and has instead created a debate over which screening method is preferable.
Last month the Food and Drug Administration approved a DNA test for human papillomavirus (HPV) for women 25 and older. HPV infection is the primary cause of cervical cancer.
The belief is that by detecting presence of HPV, doctors can screen more effectively for the cancer.
The invasive Pap smear procedure involves scraping cells of the outer cervix, then viewing them under a microscope to detect precancerous or cancerous cells.
The Pap smear is credited with a 50 percent drop in cases of cervical cancer in the U.S. over the last 30 years, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynocologists (ACOG).
The maker of the HPV test, Roche Molecular Diagnostics, told National Public Radio the HPV test can detect even more women at risk for cervical cancer early, since it can also detect types of HPV that Pap tests can miss.
“If we can detect either the risk or early disease much earlier on, then we should have many [fewer] women ultimately getting cervical cancer,” CEO Paul Brown told NPR. “And that’s, of course, the holy grail.”
Susan Wood, a women’s health policy analyst at George Washington University told NPR screening everyone for the virus is a concern because while many women have it, only some get cancer.
“Like a cold virus, everyone gets it,” Wood told NPR. “It comes and it goes. It’s only if the virus happens to stay around for a period of years that it is associated with the precancerous conditions which — if not treated — could go on to become cancer.”
Wood told NPR that screening everyone for the virus will end up scaring a lot of women for no reason and could lead to unnecessary follow-up tests, including another invasive procedure known as a colposcopy.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most people with HPV do not know they are infected and never develop symptoms or health problems from it.
Since HPV is a sexually-transmitted disease, there can also be a stigma associated with it, such as a diagnosis of genital herpes could have adverse psychological effects for some, according to the CDC.
Researchers also point out that HPV causes most cases of cervical cancer – about 85% – but not all, so the HPV test would miss such cases that the Pap smear would catch.
The ACOG recommends that women aged 30 – 65 years have both a Pap test and an HPV test every five years, or a Pap test alone every 3 years to screen for cervical cancer.