Clinical Review

Current approaches and challenges to cervical cancer prevention in the United States

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A digest of cervical cancer screening options and new tools and innovations that may help reduce cervical cancer rates—along with equitable preventive care and increased HPV vaccination rates



CASE Intervention approaches for decreasing the risk of cervical cancer

A 25-year-old woman presents to your practice for routine examination. She has never undergone cervical cancer screening or received the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine series. The patient has had 3 lifetime sexual partners and currently uses condoms as contraception. What interventions are appropriate to offer this patient to decrease her risk of cervical cancer? Choose as many that may apply:

1. cervical cytology with reflex HPV testing

2. cervical cytology with HPV cotesting

3. primary HPV testing

4. HPV vaccine series (3 doses)

5. all of the above

The answer is number 5, all of the above.

Choices 1, 2, and 3 are acceptable methods of cervical cancer screening for this patient. Catch-up HPV vaccination should be offered as well.

Equitable preventive care is needed

Cervical cancer is a unique cancer because it has a known preventative strategy. HPV vaccination, paired with cervical screening and management of abnormal results, has contributed to decreased rates of cervical cancer in the United States, from 13,914 cases in 1999 to 12,795 cases in 2019.1 In less-developed countries, however, cervical cancer continues to be a leading cause of mortality, with 90% of cervical cancer deaths in 2020 occurring in low- and middle-income countries.2

Disparate outcomes in cervical cancer are often a reflection of disparities in health access. Within the United States, Black women have a higher incidence of cervical cancer, advanced-stage disease, and mortality from cervical cancer than White women.3,4 Furthermore, the incidence of cervical cancer increased among American Indian and Alaska Native people between 2000 and 2019.5 The rate for patients who are overdue for cervical cancer screening is higher among Asian and Hispanic patients compared with non-Hispanic White patients (31.4% vs 20.1%; P=.01) and among patients who identify as LGBTQ+ compared with patients who identify as heterosexual (32.0% vs 22.2%; P<.001).6 Younger patients have a significantly higher rate for overdue screening compared with their older counterparts (29.1% vs 21.1%; P<.001), as do uninsured patients compared with those who are privately insured (41.7% vs 18.1%; P<.001). Overall, the proportion of women without up-to-date screening increased significantly from 2005 to 2019 (14.4% vs 23.0%; P<.001).6

Unfortunately, despite a known strategy to eliminate cervical cancer, we are not accomplishing equitable preventative care. Barriers to care can include patient-centered issues, such as fear of cancer or of painful evaluations, lack of trust in the health care system, and inadequate understanding of the benefits of cancer prevention, in addition to systemic and structural barriers. As we assess new technologies, one of our most important goals is to consider how such innovations can increase health access—whether through increasing ease and acceptability of testing or by creating more effective screening tests.

Updates to cervical screening guidance

In 2020, the American Cancer Society (ACS) updated its cervical screening guidelines to start screening at age 25 years with the “preferred” strategy of HPV primary testing every 5 years.7 By contrast, the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) continues to recommend 1 of 3 methods: cytology alone every 3 years; cytology alone every 3 years between ages 21 and 29 followed by cytology and HPV cotesting every 5 years at age 30 or older; or high-risk HPV testing alone every 5 years (TABLE).8

To successfully prevent cervical cancer, abnormal results are managed by performing either colposcopy with biopsy, immediate treatment, or close surveillance based on the risk of developing cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN) 3 or worse. A patient’s risk is determined based on both current and prior test results. The ASCCP (American Society for Colposcopy and Cervical Pathology) transitioned to risk-based management guidelines in 2019 and has both an app and a web-based risk assessment tool available for clinicians (

All organizations recommend stopping screening after age 65 provided there has been a history of adequate screening in the prior 10 years (defined as 2 normal cotests or 3 normal cytology tests, with the most recent test within 5 years) and no history of CIN 2 or worse within the prior 25 years.10,11 Recent studies that examined the rate of cervical cancer diagnosed in patients older than 65 years have questioned whether patients should continue screening beyond 65.10 In the United States, 20% of cervical cancer still occurs in women older than age 65.11 One reason may be that many women have not met the requirement for adequate and normal prior screening and may still need ongoing testing.12

Multiple randomized controlled trials in Europe have demonstrated the accuracy of HPV-based screening compared with cytology in the detection of cervical cancer and its precursors.

Continue to: Primary HPV screening...


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