Do You Need a Pap Test Every Year?

About 55 million Paps are done annually in the U.S. About 3.5 million, or 6%, are abnormal and require follow-up, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI).

About 12,200 cases of cervical cancer were reported in the U.S. in 2010; 4,210 women died of the disease, according to the American Cancer Society.

Significantly, about 50% of women who develop cervical cancer have never had a Pap test, says David Soper, M.D., director of the Division of Gynecology and General Obstetrics at Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston.

Women most at risk are those who wait more than three years between tests – or who never get them at all, clinicians say.

“About 90% of cases could be prevented if women get a Pap test and the interpretation is correct,” he adds.

Still, 11% of U.S. women report that they don’t have Pap screenings at all, according to the National Cervical Cancer Coalition. That’s because some don’t know about the test or don’t have easy access to medical care, Soper says.

Why the Guidelines Changed

For decades, women have had it drummed into their heads that yearly Pap tests are a must.

Yet many doctors say the research doesn’t support the benefits of such frequent screening.

“[The benefits of] annual Pap smears were never scientifically proven,” Leitao says. “They [were done annually] because women saw doctors every year.”

An analysis of 1.2 million screening results from a national early-cancer detection program found no adverse consequences from extending the interval from one to three years, according to a 2003 study led by UCSF’s Sawaya.

The reward of annual testing compared to testing every three years is diagnosing just three more cases of cervical cancer among 100,000, the study found.

“We’re not preventing more cancer by doing Pap tests annually, so why do them” and possibly cause harm? Leitao says.

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