Norwich pilot study could help thousands of women

Thousands of women could be spared unnecessary tests by checking for a cancer causing virus during routine cervical smears, a study piloted in Norwich has revealed.

Testing for the human papillomavirus (HPV) at the initial smear test reduces the number of women going on to have further invasive tests by more than a third, the research shows.

The Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital was one of six 'sentinel sites' in England to offer HPV testing during the study, started by The Institute of Cancer Research in 2007.

An estimated one in eight people will be infected by HPV at some point in their lives and while most infected women do not go on to develop cervical cancer, the virus is a major cause of the disease.

The study, published in the British Journal of Cancer, looked at more than 10,000 women aged 25 to 64 whose first smear test had shown mild or borderline cellular abnormalities in the cervix.

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These samples were then tested for HPV and around 35pc of the women (3,581) were found to be HPV negative, requiring no further attention until their next three-yearly smear test.

The remaining two-thirds underwent a colposcopy (a detailed examination of the cervix) without having to go through repeated smear tests or an anxious wait for their results.

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Around 55,000 samples from across Norfolk and parts of Suffolk are tested at the N&N's cytology department each year.

Viki Frew, consultant biomedical scientist, said: 'The HPV test allows us to deliver a much more efficient service. Most women now receive their cervical screening results within just a few days of the sample being taken.

'With the addition of HPV testing we can determine which women will benefit from an early referral to the colposcopy clinic and receive treatment if needed. Women no longer need to have ongoing repeat testing before receiving a colposcopy referral.

'The incorporation of HPV testing into the local cervical screening programme required a whole team approach involving PCTs, GP surgeries, colposcopy units, the cytology laboratory, and Anglia Support Partnership who send out the cervical screening invitations and result letters. We are very pleased with its success.'

The use of HPV testing is now being incorporated into the national screening programme and will be fully rolled out within the next year.

Sara Hiom, director of health information at Cancer Research UK, added: 'This is a welcome refinement to the highly effective cervical screening programme.

'This change has already saved thousands of women an anxious wait for extra tests and results, and should help lead to a more efficient screening programme.'

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