Thanks to the Pap test, cervical cancer cases are on the decline, but the test is far from perfect.
"For some women who have early pre-cancers or even cancer, the Pap test may miss anywhere from 15 to 50 percent of those cases," gynecologist Dr. Jeanne Mandelblatt said.
Research indicates that cervical cancer is caused primarily by the human papillomavirus or HPV. The sexually transmitted virus causes abnormal cell growth, which over time can become cancerous. Nearly 5,000 women die each year from cervical cancer.
A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association finds that testing for HPV, along with a pap smear, can identify women at high risk for cervical cancer even before pre-cancerous changes appear.
"It's the first time that we've shown in a U.S. population that testing for papillomavirus can be as good if not better than the Pap smear under certain circumstances," Mandelblatt said.
Shalini Kulasingam, an epidemiologist at Duke, supports the idea of combination testing.
"Maybe they wouldn't have to be screened every year, maybe every two years, every three years," she said.
Kulasingam cautions that women also need to be educated about HPV.
"What is it going to mean when we start telling women you have HPV? It's a sexually transmitted infection," she said.
HPV testing is mainly limited to experimental use. Researchers believe if the test becomes more widely available, it could even surpass Pap testing as the best way to prevent and detect cervical cancer.
Not all cases of HPV develop into cervical cancer. If caught early, the virus can be treated eliminating any risk of it leading to cancer.
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