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Experts Note Shortcomings of HPV Test for Cervical Cancer Screening

Experts Note Shortcomings of HPV Test for Cervical Cancer Screening

May 22, 2014 — The Pap test has long been the primary screening tool for cervical cancer, but an "intense debate" has erupted over its role since FDA approved a human papillomavirus test as a primary screening method, NPR's "Shots" reports.

Some physicians have doubts about relying solely on the HPV test, which screens for the virus that causes most cervical cancer cases.

For example, some have noted that while many women might test positive for HPV, only a portion of them will develop cancer from the infection.

HPV is "[l]ike a cold virus, everyone gets it," explained Susan Wood, a women's health policy analyst at George Washington University, adding, "It's only if the virus happens to stay around for a period of years that it is associated with the precancerous conditions which -- if not treated -- could go on to become cancer."

The concern is that screening all women for HPV could frighten many of them and lead to follow-up testing in women who would never develop cancer, "Shots" reports.

Further, Diana Zuckerman of the Cancer Prevention and Treatment Fund noted that a small portion of cervical cancers are not caused by HPV, so eliminating the Pap test may mean that cancer could go undetected in some women.

Meanwhile, Roche Molecular Diagnostics, the HPV test's manufacturer, said that the test can detect cancer or the risk of developing it earlier than a Pap test (Stein, "Shots," NPR, 5/21).