Nov. 20, 2009— -- Pap smears may no longer be called "annuals" if doctors follow new cervical cancer screening recommendations from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
The group announced today that women should start getting cervical cancer screenings at age 21 instead of 18, and that women could wait longer between the screenings -- regardless of when a woman starts having sex.
Women in their 20s with normal Pap smear results now should get screenings every two years instead of every year, and women in their 30s can wait three years between screenings, according to the new ACOG guidelines.
After a week of uproar over the controversial recommendations for less mammogram screenings for women, doctors say they will have to wait and see how the public reacts to the new pap smear guidelines.
"This is not a radical change in screening practices. This is something that's been coming gradually since the 1980s," said Dr. Alan G. Waxman, who helped write the new guidelines.
Some doctors hailed the decision as a way to reduce a host of problems caused by excessive screening; yet, a few others worried it might trigger more women to neglect annual checkups with gynecologists.
Waxman said the move toward fewer screenings will reduce unnecessary treatment in young women and protect them from future pregnancy complications.
On one hand, college-aged women have very high HPV infection rates. Dr. John Curtin, of The Cancer Institute at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City said 70 percent of all college-aged sexually active people have contracted HPV. These high infection rates translate into a high number of abnormal pap smears.
However, the ACOG guidelines point out that only 0.1 percent of cervical cancer occurs in women under 21 years of age in part, doctors believe, because young women's immune systems are strong enough to fight off HPV before it causes cancer. When dysplasias progress to cancers it's usually a result of older women missing screenings for years at a time; 50 percent of women diagnosed with cervical cancer each year never had a pap smear before, according to the ACOG statement.
And some research has suggested the diagnostic surgery that often follow an abnormal result can pose problems for future pregnancies in some women.
"The driving force behind the change was the numerous studies that show women who are treated for cervical dysplasias are more likely to have a preterm birth," said Waxman, who is a professor at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.
Waxman explained that the LEEP procedure to remove precancerous tissue often caused by an infection with the human papillomavirus, or HPV, also weakens the cervix. In fact, it's estimated, one in 18 women who've had a LEEP procedure will go on to give birth prematurely.
But, he added, new studies have shown "with most of the cervical abnormalities in adolescents, most of them get better by themselves. ... The thought is that these are the people who have most of their child-bearing years in front of them."
The ACOG recommendations cite studies showing that up to 90 percent of these infections are cleared on their own in adolescents within a few years.
The measure also was intended to reduce anxiety in young women who may struggle with the news that they are infected with a sexually transmitted virus known to cause cancer.
"I was convinced I was dying, that I had cancer. There was not enough education back then," said Nicole C., a resident of La Porte, Texas, who was diagnosed at age 22 with cervical dysplasia -- an abnormal Pap smear -- caused by HPV. "My doctor at the time made me feel horrible about myself, accusing me of not being truthful about how many partners I'd had."