A relatively new screening test was about twice as accurate as the traditional Pap smear at spotting cervical cancer, according to the first rigorous study of the test in North America.
The new test could replace the 50-year-old Pap in a matter of years, experts say. And there is a bonus for women: They will not need a screening test as often.
The HPV test, which looks for the virus that causes cervical cancer, correctly spotted 95 percent of the cancers. The Pap test, which checks for abnormal cells under a microscope, only found 55 percent, according to researchers at McGill University in Montreal, who published their findings in Thursday's New England Journal of Medicine.
Pap needs a replacement
"We've had the Pap test for over 50 years and it's high time it be replaced by technology that's more robust," said Eduardo Franco, director of McGill's division of cancer epidemiology, who led the study.
Franco said some feared the HPV test would result in more false alarms, causing anxiety and requiring more follow-up testing. In the study, there were only slightly more false positives for the HPV tests (6%) than the Pap smears (3%).
HPV, or human papilloma virus, is a common sexually transmitted disease. Infections are mostly in young women and most go away on their own. The HPV test looks for the high-risk viruses that can cause cervical cancer if the infection persists. Like the Pap, it uses cells scraped from the cervix, the lower part of the uterus.
Because the Pap test misses about half of the cases, doctors use frequent testing to catch the slow developing cancer at its earliest, most treatable stages. - (Stephanie Nano/Sapa/AP)
HPV test better than smear
Cervical cancer update