The traditional smear test to detect the virus that causes cervical cancer could be replaced with a less invasive urine test, new research has found.
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the term for a group of viruses affecting most membranes lining the body, along with the skin, and many people are unaware they are infected. Up to 80% of sexually active women are infected at some point in their lives.
Infection with specific high-risk strains of the virus can cause cervical cancer, which, according to the World Health Organization, kills around 266,000 women a year globally.
Now, scientists from the UK and Spain have found urine testing could be used as an alternative to smear testing when it comes to detecting HPV and this might lead to more women agreeing to be screened.
"The detection of HPV in urine is non-invasive, easily accessible and acceptable to women, and a test with these qualities could considerably increase uptake," the researchers said, as reported by Reuters.
"The test could be done at home and then interpreted by medical professionals," the study's authors added.
The research, published in the British Medical Journal and led by the women's health research unit at Queen Mary University of London, analysed 14 studies involving 1,443 sexually active women.
The study found urine HPV testing had an overall sensitivity (the proportion of positives correctly identified) of 87% and a specificity (the proportion of negatives correctly identified) of 94%.
Urine testing for the particularly high-risk strains of HPV that cause most cervical cancer cases had an overall sensitivity of 73% and a specificity of 98%. The researchers concluded the urine tests for HPV offer "good accuracy".
Liz Engel, a spokesperson for female cancer charity Eve Appeal, told the Independent: "A urine test which is much less invasive and embarrassing than the current cervical screening test, more commonly known as the 'smear', will undoubtedly have a positive effect on the number of women being tested.
"Currently approximately 20 per cent of eligible women invited for cervical screening fail to attend and anything that can be done to encourage more women to be screened should save lives."
HPV can cause cancers of the vagina, vulva, cervix, anus and penis. The majority of cervical cancer deaths are in poorer countries where access to screening and prevention methods are less widely available.
Smear tests, otherwise known as pap smears, involve an instrument called a speculum being inserted into the vagina to allow access to the cervix and a brush is used to collect cells from the cervix surface.
The test is believed to save the lives of 4,500 women each year, according to the Tech Times. However, many women do not have the test. NHS figures for 2012 to 2013 show that of the 4.24 million women invited to come for screening in the UK, only 3.32 million were tested.