While women over 30 still can't get vaccinated against the human papillomavirus unless their doctor gives it to them off label, they may soon have a test to determine whether they've been infected with a cervical cancer-causing strain. Today the Food and Drug Administration approved the first DNA test that identifies two HPV strains, types 16 and 18, which are responsible for 70 percent of cervical cancers in the United States.
Gynecologists typically perform an HPV test along with regular Pap smears, and the current test won't tell you if you have a cancer-causing strain, though it will categorize the types into low risk, moderate risk, or high risk. A whopping 80 percent of us become infected with the sexually transmitted virus at some point in our lives, but most of the time, the virus clears on its own without causing problems like genital warts or cancer.
Adding the new DNA test to the screening arsenal can help women become that much more vigilant in monitoring dangerous HPV strains. Your doctor, for instance, can do more frequent Pap smears to ensure you have no cervical cell changes and get a prompt biopsy if you do. You can also be tested periodically to see whether your body has been able to clear the dangerous strain on its own, lowering your risk of cervical cancer.
At the moment, the new DNA test, called Cervista HPV 16/18, isn't available in doctors' offices, but a spokesperson for the manufacturer, Hologic, says it should start arriving in limited quantities within the next three months.