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Study: New HPV Test Can Cut Deaths

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A new test for the virus that causes cervical cancer can dramatically lower the death rate from the disease in developing countries, a new study says. Hundreds of thousands of women die of cervical cancer in the developing world each year.


Worldwide, more than 270,000 women die of cervical cancer every year, the vast majority in poor countries. In western countries, the Pap smear allows for early detection and treatment. But as NPR's Brenda Wilson reports, researchers say there is another test that works better in developing countries.

BRENDA WILSON: A Pap smear has to be done repeatedly to detect cancer cells. That is not a problem in western countries, where women get the test every couple of years. But that's not affordable in developing countries, where poor women are lucky if they get a Pap smear once. An HPV test is done like a Pap smear, but it's looking for the virus that causes cervical cancer, so it seemed like a better way to look for early cancers.

The more than 130,000 women from Osmanabad, India in the study, in this week's New England Journal of Medicine, were over 30. The women were divided into four groups: one for the HPV test, another for Pap smears and a third were given a visual inspection of the cervix. The fourth group got only counseling.

Dr. RANGASWAMI SANKARANARAYANAN (World Health Organization): The single HPV test detected more pre-cancers and cancers early on, as compared to the other two tests.

WILSON: WHO's Dr. Rangaswami Sankaranarayanan says there were 50 percent fewer cancers and deaths among the women who got the HPV test than the women who got counseling. The Pap smear and visual inspection were only slightly more effective than the counseling.

Dr. SANKARANARAYANAN: So some cervical cancers were prevented because we detected them in the pre-cancerous stage and then they were treated. The second reason is a larger number of detected cancers were in earlier stages, so that in many of them the treatment was effective, and they didn't die of it. And that is why the deaths were lower in the HPV testing group.

WILSON: Sankaranarayanan says a new version of the HPV test has brought the one-time $30 price tag down to $3, a cost still beyond the means of women in developing countries. To be really affordable, he says, the price needs to come down to a dollar.

Brenda Wilson, NPR News.

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