Trade-offs in cervical cancer prevention: balancing benefits and risks

Arch Intern Med. 2008 Sep 22;168(17):1881-9. doi: 10.1001/archinte.168.17.1881.


Background: New screening and vaccination technologies will provide women with more options for cervical cancer prevention. Because the risk of cervical cancer diminishes with effective routine screening, women may wish to consider additional attributes, such as the likelihood of false-positive results and diagnostic procedures for mild abnormalities likely to resolve without intervention in their screening choices.

Methods: We used an empirically calibrated simulation model of cervical cancer in the United States to assess the benefits and potential risks associated with prevention strategies differing by primary screening test, triage test for abnormal results (cytologic testing, human papillomavirus [HPV] DNA test), and screening frequency. Outcomes included colposcopy referrals, cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN) types 1 and 2 or 3, lifetime cancer risk, and quality-adjusted life expectancy.

Results: Across strategies, colposcopy referrals and diagnostic workups varied 3-fold, although diagnostic rates of CIN 2 or 3 were similar and 95% of positive screening test results were for mild abnormalities likely to resolve on their own. For a representative group of a thousand 20-year-old women undergoing triennial screening for 10 years, we expect 1038 colposcopy referrals (7 CIN 2 or 3 diagnoses) from combined cytologic and HPV DNA testing and fewer than 200 referrals (6-7 CIN 2 or 3 diagnoses) for strategies that use triage testing. Similarly, for a thousand 40-year-old women, combined cytologic and HPV DNA testing led to 489 referrals (9 CIN 2 or 3), whereas alternative strategies resulted in fewer than 150 referrals (7-8 CIN 2 or 3). Using cytologic testing followed by triage testing in younger women minimizes both diagnostic workups and positive HPV test results, whereas in older women diagnostic workups are minimized with HPV DNA testing followed by cytologic triage testing.

Conclusions: Clinically relevant information highlighting trade-offs among cervical cancer prevention strategies allows for inclusion of personal preferences into women's decision making about screening and provides additional dimensions to the construction of clinical guidelines.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Cervical Intraepithelial Neoplasia / diagnosis*
  • Colposcopy
  • DNA Probes, HPV
  • Decision Making
  • False Positive Reactions
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Life Expectancy
  • Models, Theoretical
  • Quality of Life
  • Referral and Consultation
  • Sensitivity and Specificity
  • Triage
  • Uterine Cervical Neoplasms / prevention & control*


  • DNA Probes, HPV