Most women get screened for HPV during a routine pelvic exam, when a doctor collects cells from around the cervix.
The sample then goes to a lab where technicians determine the presence of HPV, or any abnormalities that could point to cervical cancer.
In recent years, more gynecologists have started using HPV genotyping along with the traditional pap smear.
“This is a test, a molecular test, designed to detect infection with this virus — active, ongoing replication of the virus in your bodily tissues and fluids. And if we can test those fluids and you’re not actively shedding the virus – you’re not infected with the virus,” says Dr. Matthew Anderson, a gynecological oncologist with Baylor College of Medicine.
Dr. Anderson says genotyping has already allowed certain women to space out their pap smears to once every three years, instead of enduring a pelvic exam every year. In Harris County, around 10 percent of women have never had a pap smear.
According to Dr. Anderson, cervical cancer rates in Harris County are about twice the national average, and on par with developing countries in Asia and Africa. His surveys have found the top reason women give for not getting screened is they either don’t have access to a gynecologist. Or, if they do, they don’t have the time or ability to get to an appointment.
But HPV genotyping holds the promise of allowing women to get tested for the virus without even leaving the house.
“It may be possible to provide women with the supplies, where they can swab their own cervix themselves under more comfortable circumstances, drop it in the mail, and come in if you have a problem, and use that as the primary test for cervix cancer,” Anderson says.
Dr. Anderson adds HPV genotyping without the pelvic exam and pap smear is already a common practice in parts of Italy. Here in the U.S., there are studies and clinical trials to determine whether do-it-yourself HPV testing will earn the blessing of the Food and Drug Administration.
Dr. Anderson predicts women may be able to buy at-home HPV testing kits in the next five-to-ten years.