Dutch researchers are recommending that HPV tests for all women over 30, after finding that they’re more effective in detecting HPV and preventing cervical cancer than a Pap smear on its own. Overall, that’s great news for us ladies: Improved detection = improved health. But it also makes me wonder: If Dutch researchers have been studying this for five years, on 45,000 women, why aren’t our OB/GYNs telling us this stuff, too?
I know doctors are tragically pressed for time thanks to brutal insurance policies, but I’m routinely shocked by how little OB/GYNs explain about testing (let alone the STDs themselves). Most of my gynos merely rattle off a list of STIs, and ask which ones I’d like to be tested for (without bothering to check that I understand how the tests work, which ones are accurate, or what the STIs are in the first place).
And even though HPV is extremely common in women, I routinely have conversations with friends (in their 30s) who don’t know much about the sexually transmitted disease at all. Just that suddenly, a test came back positive and they’re now scheduled for a biopsy of their cervix: A rude awakening, after years of thinking you’re in the clear.
So here’s what you need to know: HPV tests (sometimes called the digene HPV test) are not the same as pap smears. While the Pap detects precancerous cells in the cervix, the digene uses molecular technology to detect the presence of high-risk types of HPV. It can be administered on tissue samples from Pap smears (it doesn’t require a separate blood test), but it needs to be ordered by your OB/GYN; it’s not an automatic test included with a Pap.
The researchers recommend the test for women 30 and older because they’re at higher risk for cervical cancer; women in their 20s often contract HPV but only temporarily (because the virus can clear the body naturally). Women under 30 are typically only tested for HPV if their Pap results look iffy.
This is all important stuff to learn and know, but what it should also teach you is that you can’t rely on doctors and researchers to inform you during your 15-minute appointment, or occasional browse on Blisstree: To really understand your sexual health and STD testing, you need to read up on this stuff yourself.