Researchers say the at-home test can particularly help people who live in poor and rural areas.

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A home test kit could be an important tool in the fight against HPV. Getty Images

Contracting some types of human papillomavirus (HPV) can cause cancer.

Given the serious consequences, a group of researchers wants to help make sure everyone can get tested for this common disease.

The researchers recently concluded a study that found that mailing at-home HPV tests to women in areas where getting tested is difficult could save lives.

Paul Reiter, co-lead researcher and associate professor of health behavior and health promotion at Ohio State University, told Healthline the study was designed to “test a mail-based HPV self-testing program for underscreened women in order to examine the feasibility and acceptability of this screening strategy.”

The study, which was published in the journal Sexually Transmitted Diseases, found that 80 percent of women who were sent the kits used them and returned them to the researchers for testing.

Reiter says the return rate was much higher than they had expected.

Real-life concerns

The women who received the test expected it to arrive and had already agreed to return it.

This means the researchers don’t know how effective a program of home HPV testing may be for women outside of a preplanned study.

“Our study required women to provide consent as part of the study process, and this may have resulted in enrolling women who were already highly interested in using an HPV self-test,” Reiter said.

The study recruited 103 women between ages 30 and 65 from Appalachian Ohio who couldn’t easily access medical care.

They were sent an HPV screening kit containing the Evalyn Brush, a device that quickly and easily collects cells from the cervix and vagina.

Almost 1 in 4 participants tested positive for a type of HPV that causes cancer.

Dr. Timothy N. Hickman, a board-certified reproductive endocrinologist and co-founder of Houston IVF, says that doesn’t mean all those women will get cancer.

“Only a small fraction of women infected with a high-risk HPV will develop cancer… It’s a very small fraction of infected women,” Hickman told Healthline.

Reiter says the tests are important nonetheless.

“I think our results help show that mail-based HPV self-testing is a potentially promising strategy for reaching and screening women who have not been recently screened for cervical cancer. Results show very positive feedback about the self-testing process,” Reiter said.

The researchers are hoping to conduct a larger study that more closely mimics how remote HPV testing would work in a “real world” setting.

Preventing HPV infection

Most cervical cancers are the result of a persistent HPV infection.

Almost every sexually active person will contract some form of the virus during their lives.

While most infections will resolve without causing any health problems, in some cases they can lead to cancer of the cervix, vulva, vagina, penis, anus, or throat.

According to Planned Parenthood, the best to way to avoid contracting an HPV is to avoid having any sexual contact.

The next best methods to reduce infection risk are getting the HPV shot or using condoms or other protection when having sex.

“To really reduce the rate of HPV infection, all children should receive the HPV vaccine at the CDC recommended ages,” said Dr. Ophira M. Ginsburg, medical oncologist and director of the High Risk Program at New York University’s Perlmutter Cancer Center.

“Australia is edging toward the elimination of cervical cancer by a combination of HPV vaccines and high population coverage of cervical screening and treatment of precancers,” Ginsburg told Healthline.

HPV vaccine controversy

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), side effects of the HPV shot include headache, nausea, and muscle or joint pain.

However, recently published research in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health suggests an association between receiving the HPV vaccine and reduced fertility.

The study analyzed data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, covering 2007 to 2014, on 8 million U.S. women between ages 25 and 29.

The researchers found that although 60 percent of U.S. women who weren’t vaccinated had been pregnant, only 35 percent of those vaccinated had conceived.

When looking at the data for married women, 75 percent who didn’t get the shot had been pregnant, compared to only half of those who were vaccinated.

Is there cause for concern?

Ginsburg isn’t convinced of the dangers.

“The study has several important limitations, including the suggestion that aluminum in the vaccine preparation might be the culprit,” she said. “If this was true, we would expect to see this problem in the other vaccines that use the same adjuvant.”

According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, millions of people have been vaccinated against HPV, and there have been no reports of severe side effects or adverse reactions.

Hickman was emphatic.

“There’s no biologic plausibility for this association,” he said.

“We do know that during the period when these observations were made, women in general were having fewer children,” Hickman pointed out. “2017 was the first year in which more women in their 30s had a baby than in their 20s in the U.S. So we’re catching up to Europe and Japan and other places where people are delaying childbearing for other reasons, like career or education.”

Hickman points out another reason to take this study with a grain of salt.

“I’m sure this was done with the best of intentions, but the author mentions a significant conflict of interest. She filed a claim under the vaccine injury compensation program on behalf of her daughter that was later dismissed,” he said.

The bottom line

HPV can cause cancer of the cervix, vulva, vagina, penis, anus, or throat.

Women living in poorer and remote areas can go long periods without Pap smears or HPV tests, increasing the risk of undiagnosed cancer.

For these women, remote HPV testing can bring them potentially life-saving medical care.

The best ways to prevent contracting HPV are getting the HPV shot and using condoms or other protection when having sex.

While the shot can cause symptoms like soreness at the injection site and muscle or joint pain, it’s the best way to prevent both contracting HPV and developing certain types of cancer.