How to Select the Appropriate Cervical Cancer Screening Algorithm

Addressing HPV vaccine misconceptions and selecting the right screening algorithm

By Salina Zhang and Pelin Batur, MD

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Challenges of Vaccination

Effective patient and family counseling is important. Even though the first HPV vaccine was approved in 2006, only 34.9% of US adolescents were fully vaccinated by 2015. This was in part because providers did not recommend it, were unfamiliar with it, or had concerns about its safety,11,12 and in part because some parents refused it.

The physician must address any myths regarding HPV vaccination and ensure that parents and patients understand that HPV vaccine is safe and effective. Studies have shown that with high-quality recommendations (i.e., the care provider strongly endorses the HPV vaccine, encourages same-day vaccination, and discusses cancer prevention), patients are 9 times more likely to start the HPV vaccination schedule and 3 times more likely to follow through with subsequent doses.13

Providing good family and patient education does not necessarily require spending more counseling time. A recent study showed that spending less time discussing the HPV vaccine can lead to better vaccine coverage.14 The study compared parent HPV vaccine counseling techniques and found that simply informing patients and their families that the HPV vaccine was due was associated with a higher vaccine acceptance rate than inviting conversations about it.14 When providers announced that the vaccine was due, assuming the parents were ready to vaccinate, there was a 5.4% increase in HPV vaccination coverage.14

Conversely, physicians who engaged parents in open-ended discussions about the HPV vaccine did not improve HPV vaccination coverage.14 The authors suggested that providers approach HPV vaccination as if they were counseling patients and families about the need to avoid second-hand smoke or the need to use car seats. If parents or patients resist the presumptive announcement approach, expanded counseling and shared decision-making are appropriate. This includes addressing misconceptions that parents and patients may have about the HPV vaccine. The American Cancer Society lists 8 facts to reference.15

 Secondary Prevention: Cervical Cancer Screening

Since the introduction of the Papanicolaou (Pap) test, US cervical cancer incidence rates have decreased by more than 60%.16 Because almost all cervical cancer is preventable with proper screening, all women ages 21 to 65 should be screened.

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Currently, there are 3 options available for cervical cancer screening: the Pap-only test, the Pap-HPV cotest, and the high-risk HPV-only test. The latter 2 options detect high-risk HPV genotypes.

Several organizations have screening algorithms that recommend when to use these tests, but the 3 that shape today’s standard of care in cervical cancer screening come from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), the American Society for Colposcopy and Cervical Pathology (ASCCP), and US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF).17–19

Pap-only testing is performed every 3 years to screen for cervical neoplasia that might indicate premalignancy.

Pap-HPV cotesting is performed every 5 years in women older than 30 with past normal screening. Until 2018, all 3 organizations recommended cotesting as the preferred screening algorithm for women ages 30 to 65.17–19 Patients with a history of abnormal test results require more frequent testing as recommended by the ASCCP.18

The high-risk HPV-only test utilizes real-time polymerase chain reaction to detect HPV 16, HPV 18, and 12 other HPV genotypes. Only 2 tests are approved by the FDA as stand-alone cervical cancer screening tests—the Roche Cobas HPV test approved in 2014 and the Becton Dickinson Onclarity HPV assay approved in 2018. Other HPV tests that are used in a cotesting strategy should not be used for high-risk HPV-only testing because their performance characteristics may differ.

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In 2015, the Addressing the Need for Advanced HPV Diagnostics (ATHENA) study showed that 1 round of high-risk HPV-only screening for women older than 25 was more sensitive than Pap-only or cotesting for stage 3 cervical intraepithelial neoplasia or more severe disease (after 3 years of follow-up).20 Current guidelines from ASCCP18 and ACOG17 state that the high-risk HPV test can be repeated every 3 years (when used to screen by itself) if the woman is older than 25 and has had a normal test result.

If the HPV test result is positive for high-risk HPV 16 or 18 genotypes, then immediate colposcopy is indicated; women who test positive for one of the other 12 high-risk subtypes will need to undergo a Pap test to determine the appropriate follow-up.18,21

In 2018, the USPSTF updated its recommendations, noting that for women age 30 to 65, Pap-only testing every 3 years, cotesting every 5 years, or high-risk HPV-only testing every 5 years are all appropriate screening strategies, with the Pap-only or high-risk HPV-only screenings being preferred.19 This is in contrast to ACOG and ASCCP recommendations for cotesting every 5 years, with alternative options of Pap-only or HPV-only testing being done every 3 years.17,18


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Note: This article was originally published in the Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine.