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Women can wait until age 21 for cervical cancer test, group says

Dr. Jennifer Ashton reports on new cancer screening guidelines affecting women that would recommend less frequent pap smears to detect cervical cancer.

"The new ACOG practice guidelines appear consistent with where we have seen the science trending," said Alan Kaye, chairman of the coalition's board of directors.

Some members of the group, however, were less supportive.

"It seems a little bit of a week where women's health is taking a beating, considering the suggested guideline changes for mammography and all," Patricia Juirc, 37, a cervical cancer survivor from Mission Viejo, Calif., wrote in an e-mail. "Like they no longer want to be proactive and only see or treat us when we get sick."

Because cervical cancer is caused by a sexually transmitted virus known as the human papillomavirus (HPV), many medical groups had recommended that women start having annual Pap tests within three years of becoming sexually active.

Under the new guidelines, women can wait until they reach age 21 for their first test regardless of when they begin having sex, be screened only every other year until they turn 30 and then start having the test every three years if nothing concerning shows up on three consecutive tests. Those at increased risk, however, should continue to be screened more frequently, the group said.

The recommendations were based on evidence that while HPV is not unusual among sexually active girls and women, and abnormalities caused by the virus are common, those abnormalities often go away on their own and cervical cancer remains rare, especially at the youngest ages. Cervical cancer is also grows relatively slowly, so even if it does occur, waiting to catch it at age 21 would not pose a significant danger, the group concluded.

Staff reporter Michael D. Shear contributed to this report.

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