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Testing women for virus spread by skin-to-skin contact during sex might help detect cervical cancer

Most people will have HPV at some point in their lives. Certain types can lead to cervical cancer.

Image: Shutterstock/Alexander Raths

TESTING FOR THE human papillomavirus (HPV) virus might improve the detection of cervical cancer.

HPV is a common virus usually spread by skin-to-skin contact during sexual contact.

At present, when a women presents for a smear test, cells from the cervix are taken and the sample is sent to the laboratory to be checked.

Using a liquid-based cytology, the laboratory will examine the smear test sample for cell changes. If abnormalities are found, the laboratory will then test the sample for certain types of HPV infection.

This determines whether a woman should be referred for colposcopy or go back to routine screening.

At the request of the National Screening Service, the Health Information and Quality Authority (HIQA) will undertake an assessment  to evaluate ‘the clinical, financial, ethical and organisational implications’ of changing the order of testing from liquid-based cytology to HPV DNA testing first.

This means that all samples could be automatically and routinely tested for HPV.

The HPV virus 

Most people will have HPV at some point in their lives, and in most cases it causes no symptoms and is cleared by the body’s immune system.

However, persistent infection with a number of HPV virus types can lead to the development of cervical cancer.

There are over 100 different types of HPV. Most are low risk and do not cause changes to cervical cells.

shutterstock_334879688 Source: Shutterstock/Komsan Loonprom


In 2010, the HPV school immunisation programme for girls was rolled out by the HSE. Girls can have the vaccine in their first year of secondary school. HIQA states the current vaccine is used protect against two high-risk HPV types (types 16 and 18) that cause seven out of every ten cases of cervical cancer.

The vaccine recently came in for some criticism following a TV3 documentary. The HSE responded by stating that the vaccine has a ‘good safety record’.

Dr Máirín Ryan, HIQA’s Director of Health Technology Assessment said the expert group will examine international evidence on the clinical and cost-effectiveness of HPV testing.

The group will also examine the cost of switching to HPV DNA testing for the Irish healthcare system and advise on what would be the optimal screening strategy for preventing cervical cancer in Ireland.

The final results of the review are expected at the end of the year and will be submitted to the National Screening Service for consideration.

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