ATLANTA (AP) â€” Women who have normal Pap smear exams may be able to safely wait up to three years between follow-up screenings instead of having them annually, the government reported Thursday.
A study showed that such women run a very low risk of cervical cancer whether they wait nine months or three years between Pap tests, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. The study involved 128,805 women.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends annual screenings for most women, while the American Cancer Society says less frequent tests are OK for women with three consecutive normal Pap tests.
Women should talk with their doctors before deciding to wait longer between screenings, said Dr. George Sawaya, the study's main author and a gynecologist who teaches at the University of California at San Francisco.
``If a woman has decided already with her provider to be screened less often than annually, these data are reassuring that the risk of having a bad outcome is quite small,'' Sawaya said.
Every year, more than 50 million American women have Pap smears, gynecological screenings used to detect the presence of cancer or precancerous cells.
The study by the CDC and the University of California found that women who waited nine months to a year between Pap tests had precancerous lesions at a rate of 25 per 10,000. For women waiting one to two years, the rate was 29 per 10,000. Those waiting two to three years had a rate of 33 per 10,000.
The American Cancer Society has advocated less frequent Pap smears in healthy women since the late 1980s. But many doctors have resisted the change, arguing that patients might think they do not need Pap tests at all or forget to have them.
``Right now the public and their doctors really want to be protected,'' said Dr. Robert Smith, the Cancer Society's director of cancer screening. ``They don't want to die of a cancer when they thought they were doing everything right to find it early.''
Sawaya said screening healthy women less often would cut down on the number of false-positive Pap tests, which can require women to go through unneeded medical tests and emotional stress.
It would also help publicly funded clinics save money that could be used to reach women who have never had a Pap smear, said Dr. Mona Sarayia, a CDC epidemiologist.
Health officials estimate about half of American women have never had a Pap smear. The women whose tests were examined by researchers came from the CDC's screening program for poor and uninsured women.