HPV primary screening in the NHS Cervical Screening Programme

What is HPV primary screening?

HPV primary screening is a slightly different way of examining your cervical screening sample. The NHS Cervical Screening Programme is currently running a test (known as a 'pilot') to see if HPV primary screening should be used throughout the whole of the cervical screening programme in England.

What is HPV?

HPV is a very common virus that can be transmitted during intimate sexual contact. Most women get HPV at some point in their lives, and in most cases your body will get rid of the virus without you ever knowing you had it. HPV is linked to the development of abnormal cervical cells. If left untreated, these abnormal cells may go on to develop into cervical cancer.

How does HPV primary screening affect me?

What happens at your screening appointment will not change. The doctor or nurse will still take a small sample of cells from your cervix to send away to a laboratory to be examined. However, there is a slight change to what happens at the laboratory. There are now two ways in which your cell sample may be examined, depending on whether you are in a pilot area or not:

1) If you are not in a pilot area: laboratory staff will look at your cell sample under a microscope to see if it contains any abnormal cells. This process is known as 'cytology'. If borderline or low grade abnormal cells are found, the sample is then tested for human papillomavirus (HPV). For more information about the kinds of result you can get from cervical screening, please read our leaflet Cervical screening: What your abnormal result means.

2) If you are in a pilot area: laboratory staff will test your sample for the human papillomavirus (HPV) first. If HPV is found, your sample will then be examined under a microscope for abnormal cells (cytology).

Why are you piloting (trying out) HPV primary screening?

HPV primary screening has several benefits over the current method of examining cervical samples (called 'cytology'):

  • HPV testing picks up more cervical cell abnormalities than cytology.
  • However, some women who are healthy will get a positive result from an HPV test. This is why we doublecheck all samples that test positive for HPV with cytology. This means we look at the cells under a microscope to see if any abnormalities are present.
  • If HPV isn't present in your sample (an 'HPV negative' result), we know that you are extremely unlikely to develop cervical cancer in the next few years
  • In future, if you have an HPV negative result you may not have to come for cervical screening as frequently.

Can I choose whether to have cytology or HPV primary screening?

No. In areas where HPV primary screening is being piloted, this will be the only method used. In areas outside the pilot, HPV primary screening is not yet available.

Where are the pilots for HPV primary screening happening?

Six screening laboratories are running the pilot in England. They are based in:

  • Bristol
  • Liverpool
  • London
  • Manchester
  • Norwich
  • Sheffield

The first laboratories will start in May 2013, and the others will follow later in 2013.

Not everyone in these areas will be offered HPV primary screening. You will get information about HPV primary screening with your cervical screening invitation letter if you are to be included in the pilot.

More information about HPV and cervical screening