Evolving science means updated guidelines, and improvements to the standard cervical cancer tool, the PAP test, recently prompted the American Cancer Society (ACS) to change the recommended testing start age from 21 to 25.

Dr. Daniel Gottschall, an obstetrician/gynecologist at St. Vincent’s Medical Center, part of Hartford HealthCare, said the ACS had not updated its guidelines since 2012 but that improvements to the test itself have been dramatic.

“It’s become a better test,” he said of the PAP test, which he called “the best screening test in history of medicine in preventing cervical cancer.”

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The PAP test, invented more than 70 years ago, initially gave pathologists a means to examine cervical cells for signs of cancer. The more improved test, Dr. Gottschall said, enables them to look at the cervical cells and also test them for the presence of the human papillomavirus (HPV), a common virus that is known to cause cervical cancer by altering cervical cells.

“The HPV virus causes cells to change in a precancerous state. When women started getting screened at age 21, we were just looking at the cells,” he said. “Now, we are looking at the cells and measuring for the presence or absence of (HPV) virus.”

The more advanced screening test and the introduction of an HPV vaccine – given as three injections to both males and females at around age 13 and before they are sexually active – should help curb the numbers of cervical cancer nationally, he added.

“The American Cancer Society changed its recommendations because not only is the PAP a better test, but we’re immunizing our children so there should be a decreased incidence,” Dr. Gottschall said, adding that the HPV vaccine should grant lifetime immunity to cervical cancer.

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