Last month the FDA approved a DNA-based genetic test for the presence of human papilloma virus (HPV) as a first-choice screening option for cervical cancer. The DNA-based HPV test takes advantage of the fact that nearly all cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV infections. The FDA’s decision means that women (and their doctors) can now choose the DNA-based test for the HPV virus over the traditional Pap test for screening for cervical cancer, if they wish.

Just because the FDA approved the test doesn’t mean that doctors are required to switch to it, though. It just means that it’s available as another option. The Pap test has been the gold standard for screening for cervical cancer for fifty years, whereas the DNA-based HPV test has only been around for about 10 years. Millions of women routinely get a pap test (or smear) every three to five years; many of them may be reluctant to switch. On the other hand, some doctors will undoubtedly recommend both tests, just to cover all bases.

The DNA-based HPV test is likely to cost about twice as much as the traditional Pap test, but neither test is very expensive (under $100). At the moment there are no recommendations from professional medical societies regarding how often the new test should be done, and whether (or under what conditions) it has any advantage over the Pap test.

Regardless of which screening test is used, a positive result (possible cancer) is generally checked for accuracy by a biopsy before any treatment is undertaken.

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