The province is making changes to the Alberta Cervical Cancer Screening Program and has added reflex testing for HPV to Pap tests.

Starting in December, Pap test processing labs in Alberta will begin HPV testing on selected Pap test samples.

HPV or human papillomavirus is a very common virus that affects many women.

There are many types of HPV most of which are harmless. However some types can cause changes in the cells of the cervix and could lead to cervical cancer if left untreated.

Almost all cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV and hundreds of women's lives are saved every year in Alberta because of Pap tests.

Sometimes cell changes are spotted in the lab and it's not clear whether they are important or not so the woman is asked to retest in six months to see if there are any changes.

Now a new test looks for high-risk types of HPV and can tell right away whether these unclear changes need follow-up care.

Not all Pap tests will be tested for HPV.

The Pap test sample will be tested for HPV if the woman is 30 or older and their Pap test shows cell changes that are hard for the lab to read.

Infections are less likely to clear in women of this age group and those who have high-risk HPV are at an increased risk of developing cervical cancer in the future.

The HPV reflex test is not useful for women younger than 30 as the virus is more common in younger women and will usually clear on its own.

The new test should reduce the number of Pap tests required to check on suspicious cells and may also prevent unnecessary biopsies.

If HPV is discovered the patient may be referred to a specialist for a colposcopy which allows the physician to look closely at the abnormal cells and prescribe a treatment.

The Alberta Cervical Cancer Screening Program is also changing the frequency of Pap tests as follows:

  • Within five years, screen with three negative Pap tests at least 12 months apart and then extend the screening interval to every three years.

  • More frequent interactions with health care providers may be necessary for periodic health exams and screening for sexually transmitted infections (STI). These visits do not necessitate cervical cancer screening unless the woman is due.

  • For women older than 69 who have never been screened, screen with three annual Pap tests. If results are negative and satisfactory, discontinue screening.

  • Those women with an increased health risk or past cervical disease should continue to be screened annually.

Pap screening can be discontinued for:

  • Women who have had a hysterectomy with the cervix removed for BENIGN DISEASE, as long as there is adequate pathological documentation that the cervix has been removed completely
  • Women older than 69 years who have had at least three consecutive satisfactory and negative Pap tests at the recommended screening interval in the last 10 years

According to ACCSP more than seven out of every ten sexually active people will get HPV in their lifetime and it is so common that most people get it soon after they become sexually active.

For more information on the tests, visit the Screening For Life website.