From this week, all smear tests in Wales will look for the presence of high-risk strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV) which cause 99.8 per cent of cervical cancers.
Cervical screening tests – also called smear tests – have previously looked for any cell changes on the cervix which may, or in some cases may not, develop into cervical cancer. However, the new way of testing, which looks first for high-risk HPV, has been proven to be a more reliable and sensitive method to help prevent women from developing cervical cancer.
Wales is the first UK nation to fully adopt high-risk HPV testing as the first test done on every cervical screening sample. It is being coordinated by Cervical Screening Wales, part of Public Health Wales.
Louise Dunk, Head of Programme for Cervical Screening Wales, said:
“Every year around 160 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer in Wales. It’s the most common type of cancer in women under the age of 35.
“Almost all cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV. It’s a very common virus that around 80 per cent of us will have at some time during our life. Although there are many strains of HPV, only certain high-risk ones can cause cervical cancer. There is no treatment to get rid of HPV but for most women their immune system will eliminate the virus.
“HPV can be passed on through any type of skin-to-skin sexual contact, including intimate touching, with a man or woman. You or your partner could have had HPV for some time without knowing about it. Regardless of whether you’re currently in a sexual relationship or not, you may still have HPV.
“Most types of cervical cancer take a long time to develop. That’s why we are calling on all women between 25 and 64 years old to attend their regular smear test to detect any pre-cancerous changes early when treatment is more effective.
“We are really excited to be leading the way on bringing a more sensitive and reliable way of detecting pre-cancerous cell changes to the women of Wales.”
There will be no difference in how the cervical smear test is taken. A trained health care professional will insert a speculum into the vagina to be able to see the cervix. They then use a small soft brush to take a sample of cells from the surface of the cervix. The sample is put into a pot of fluid and sent to the laboratory, where it is tested for the high-risk HPV types. If HPV is found, the cells are then looked at to see if there are any changes.
Robert Music, Chief Executive for Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, said:
“It is fantastic that Wales is the first UK country to change its cervical screening programme to testing for HPV. This is a far more accurate way of identifying those at greater risk of cervical cancer and it will save lives.
“HPV can be confusing so don’t be worried about asking any questions you have about your cervical screening results or what having HPV means. There are many reasons which can make cervical screening difficult to attend. However, it is the best protection against cervical cancer so I would encourage all women to take up their invitation.”
Health Secretary, Vaughan Gething, said:
“I am delighted that Cervical Screening Wales will now be providing high-risk HPV testing as the primary cervical screening test across Wales. This is a more sensitive test and will prevent more cancers than current testing. Wales will be the first of the UK nations to introduce this test for all screening participants.
“There are over 100 different types of HPV, but only around 13 types are associated with cancer and these are known as 'high-risk' types. The new test will look for the 13 known high risk HPV types, which cause 99.8% of cervical cancers.
“The test will deliver significantly better quality testing and improved patient experience. There will also be more appropriate referrals to colposcopy services, resulting in quicker treatment and women being discharged back to routine surveillance more quickly.”
Women aged 25 to 49 years are invited for a smear test every three years, and women aged 50 to 64 years are invited every five years.
Dr Sharon Hillier, Director of Screening for Public Health Wales, said:
“In Wales, girls aged 12-13 have been offered the HPV vaccine since September 2008, with a further catch-up campaign for girls up to 18 from 2009-11.
“This vaccine protects against high-risk types of HPV that cause over 70 per cent of cervical cancer cases. However, some cervical cancers are caused by types of HPV that the vaccine doesn’t cover. Therefore, it is still important for women who have received the HPV vaccine to attend for their cervical smear tests when they are invited.”