News for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

New Cervical Cancer Screening Guidelines Could Reduce Use Of Pap Smear Tests

The new guidelines continue use of the Pap smear test, but HPV testing may prove more effective.

New guidelines in screening for cervical cancer include the option of HPV testing, a move that may soon signal the end for the Pap smear test.

Cervical cancer used to be a common cause of death among American women. Today, the American Cancer Society says, 13,000 American women are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year — and 4,000 will die.

Incomplete screening is the most common reason.

But adding the HPV test to the screening guidelines improves a woman's options, says Dr. Matthew Carlson, an assistant professor in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at UT Southwestern Medical Center.

"I think what we’re finding now is that testing for the HPV virus might be as good or better, and we may be setting the stage for just HPV testing down the road," Carlson said.

New guidelines for cervical cancer screening

  • Women ages 21-29 should get a Pap smear every three years.
  • Women ages 30-65 can get an HPV test every five years, or a Pap test every three years, or a combination every five years.
  • Women over 65 who have had recent clear tests probably don’t need testing anymore.
  • Women under 21 probably do not need testing.

Interview Highlights

Why not offer the option to women 21 through 29? I think that has to do with the fact that younger women are more likely to have the HPV virus, and clear it, just because of the nature of earlier sexual intercourse and where they are in their lives; they may not be in a monogamous relationship. Also, most of these infections never cause any problems, so we could end up going on a wild goose chase for something that’s going to be self-limiting.

Why introduce the HPV option: I think what we’re finding now is that testing for the HPV virus might be as good or better (than the pap test), and we may be setting the stage for just HPV testing down the road.

Limitations of the Pap smear test: One of the limitations is that we’re actually looking at the cells, and that’s automated and is subject to interpretation sometimes. It can lead to unnecessary tests sometimes. The HPV is more objective – it’s positive or negative. The pap tests are more subjective - there are kind of degrees of abnormality they can see.

Is the end of the Pap test near? I think that’s where we’re headed. I think they purposely leave some leeway here, partly because there are some places that don’t have the infrastructure to go to HPV testing only. We’ve been doing the automated pap tests for so long, and then they were able to easily add the HPV testing for what we call co-testing. I think that to have a shift that abrupt to just HPV testing may be tough for some institutions.


Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.