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Independents' Day

A third of under-25s have high-risk HPV

By Brian Kelly

A Government-funded study has shown one in five women ­ and nearly half of those aged under 25 ­ are infected with human papillomavirus (HPV), a significant risk factor for

cervical cancer.

The researchers hope the findings will influence the decision on whether or not to add HPV testing to the cervical screening programme.

The NHS Cancer Screening Programmes, which recently told GPs to stop offering cervical smear tests to women under 25, welcomed the study and said two pilot trials were ongoing that would provide 'clear evidence' on whether to go ahead with the move.

The pilots are looking at HPV testing in under-25s.

The study, funded by the Scottish Executive, looked at the prevalence of HPV infection in 3,444 liquid-based cervical cytology smears. The results, published in the Journal of Clinical Pathology (January), found 20 per cent tested positive. Of these, 77 per cent showed a severe form of the virus known as 'high-risk HPV'.

Some 42 per cent of women under 25 were infected, which the researchers put down to a higher level of

sexual activity.

Study leader Dr Kate Cus-chieri, a virologist at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, said: 'The most striking feature we noted was the high prevalence of multiple high-risk HPV infections in both high-grade and low-grade cervical neoplasia, reflecting common sexual transmission.'

A spokeswoman for the NHS Cancer Screening Programmes said: 'HPV is a group of more than 80 virus types, some of which are associated with an increased risk of cervical cancer.

'Most women are infected with the virus at some point, but it is not yet possible to tell which of these will go on to develop cervical intraepithelial neoplasia nor which of them will naturally expel the virus by the normal functioning of their immune system.

'Most HPV infections disappear and even those women who contract high-risk HPVs rarely go on to develop cervical cancer.

'Carrying out an HPV test at the same time as a woman has a smear test may help to decide how to manage the woman if her smear shows minor abnormalities, and could avoid referral to colposcopy with its associated anxiety.'

Study co-author Dr Mich-ael Whitley, a GP in Edinburgh, said: 'If HPV testing is to be included within cervical screening programmes the importance of multiple HPV infections in cervical neoplasia needs to be determined.

'We hope the second phase of our longitudinal study will further address the relevance of multiple high-risk HPV infections on the progression of cervical neoplasia.'

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