No one enjoys going for cervical screening but we all know those uncomfortable few minutes could be life-saving.
The good news is that women may only need three cervical screens - formerly known as smear tests - in their lifetime if they have been given the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine.
Currently, women aged 25 to 49 are advised to undergo cervical screening every three years, while those aged 50 to 64 are invited every five years under the NHS.
However, new research, funded by Cancer Research UK and conducted by a team from Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), found that a cervical screening at ages 30, 40 and 55 would offer “the same benefit” to vaccinated women as the 12 lifetime screens currently offered in England.
The results are based on how the HPV vaccine and the improved cervical screening programme will work best together. The new programme, called ‘HPV primary testing’, is set to be introduced in England by December 2019.
It means that cervical samples are tested for HPV but only checked for abnormal cells if the virus is found. The current test checks for abnormalities first, which is less efficient.
Scotland and Wales are also making their own plans to introduce this new HPV test.
Since 2008, the HPV vaccine has been offered to schoolgirls and is usually given to girls in year eight. The first group to receive the vaccines are now reaching the age for their first cervical screening invitation.
The new research suggests that these women can still be effectively protected from cervical cancer with fewer screens, which could also save the NHS resources.
Professor Peter Sasieni, Cancer Research UK’s screening expert and lead author based at QMUL, said: “The NHS should benefit from the investment that it’s made by introducing the vaccination programme. These women are far less likely to develop cervical cancer, so they don’t need such stringent routine checking as those at a higher risk.
“This decision would free up resources for where they are needed most. The change in the screening system is a unique opportunity to reassess how often women are invited for cervical screens during their lifetimes.”
HPV infects most unvaccinated people (eight out of 10) at some point in their lives. Most infections go away on their own, but if an infection is not cleared it can go on to cause cervical cancer.
According to Cancer Research UK, without HPV infection there would be almost no cases of cervical cancer in the UK.
The current HPV vaccine protects women against the four most dangerous forms of HPV, which are responsible for causing 70% of all cervical cancer cases.
As the risk of cervical cancer is considerably reduced after vaccination, the study suggests that the number of screens should be decreased accordingly, avoiding unnecessary procedures for women.
The study also suggests that unvaccinated women should only need seven lifetime screens when the new test comes in, five fewer than is currently standard.
Dr Julie Sharp, head of health information at Cancer Research UK, said: “This is great news for women. The cervical screening programme is already very successful, and has led to a dramatic fall in deaths from the disease since its introduction.
“While we hope to see these improvements to the screening programme in the future, it’s important that women continue to take up invitations for cervical screening. So if you’re all set for your next screen, keep that appointment.”
The research is published in full in the International Journal of Cancer.