In the United States, among other countries, we have a growing public health dilemma. People are not showing up to their regular pap screenings. Because of this, an alarming 52% of cervical cancers are detected in advanced stages. Because early detection of cervical cancer cells via pap smear significantly decreases risk of fatality, detecting cervical cancers in advanced stages is putting us at not only a tragic and incomprehensible disadvantage for fighting disease, but also a preventable one.
But, it’s not as simple as reminding our friends and families to head to the doctor. In the United States, we have disparities comparable to lower income nations – preventing Americans from attending their regular screenings, such as income, location and other social determinants. In fact, some research suggests your zip code has more impact on your health outcomes, than any other factors.
Because of this, public health experts have to get creative in finding ways to detect HPV that are cheap and effective, and don’t require the same kind of testing that is currently available, albeit inaccessible to some.
Are sanitary pads the cheap and effective solution to this public health dilemma?
A 2003, small study with 17 participants found that 100% of cervical cancer participants had HPV detected in their menstrual pads. After this study, little was done with this information in the United States. However, in India, where access to pap smears is much less available – they’ve begun using sanitary pads as a way of detecting HPV and cervical cancer risk.
In the world’s first trial of its kind, women in the community-based study are packaging up used sanitary pads, and shipping them on dry ice to the National Institute of Research in Reproductive and Child Health Laboratory in Mumbai, India to test for HPV.
Another group of researchers in China, took used menstrual pads and were able to successfully identify HPV in 94.2% of them. In fact according to the Washington Post, the DNA analysis used on these menstrual pads was more accurate in identifying HPV and multi-strain cervical cancers than other cervical tests available.
Does this replace the need for pap smears?
Not yet, at least.
Despite our best efforts, HPV is still a heavily stigmatized infection. Additionally, some patients find cervical screenings to be invasive and uncomfortable. Public health experts have to adopt out-of-the-box thinking when it comes to preventing advanced cervical cancers, and promoting HPV screening to the public. HPV screening via sanitary pads may be an innovative and less invasive way to encourage others to maintain regular screenings. However, because this approach is not currently practiced throughout the United States, it does not replace the need for regular pap smears. Not yet, at least.
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