Ireland’s health system must urgently move to a new primary form of cervical screening which, together with vaccination, has the potential to eliminate cervical cancer in Irish women within a generation, the Irish Cancer Society has said.
The call was made at a special information event hosted by the Society and the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland which heard how the introduction of HPV testing as the country’s primary cervical screening method would:
- lead to 20% more precancerous abnormalities being detected
- result in 30% more cervical cancer cases and deaths being avoided for every screening test carried out, compared to the current screening strategy
- reduce the interval required between screenings, from the current three to five years for most women.*
However, at the event experts stressed that speed in the implementation of HPV testing should not be at the price of quality. A move to primary HPV testing must be accompanied by a targeted information campaign to clinicians and the general public on the benefits and limitations of screening, as well as adequate resources in the healthcare system to deal with increased demand for treatments resulting from more precancerous abnormalities being detected.
Speaking at the event, Dr Robert O’Connor, Head of Research at the Irish Cancer Society, said:
“This year in Ireland around 90 women will die from cervical cancer. A further 280 will be diagnosed with this serious illness, with unfortunately four-in-ten of them dying within five years.
“Cervical screening works by detecting abnormalities that can be treated before they potentially develop into cancer. Each year around 6,500 Irish women need hospital treatment to remove precancerous growths in their cervix.
“By moving to primary HPV testing, we’ll be able to find more of these growths and act sooner to treat them, saving more women’s lives in the process.”
The liquid cytology ‘smear’ test currently used primarily is only able to reliably detect the most common form of cervical pre-cancer – those that give rise to squamous cancers.
It is expected that a change to screening based on HPV testing in the first instance will improve the detection of precancers, including some of those which the current smear does not pick up.
In May 2017, HIQA recommended that HPV testing be introduced as the primary cervical screening method, with the smear test still being used, but only in certain cases where a follow-up screening is required.