The Papanicolaou test also known as the Pap smear or cervical smear test is a screening test used by gynecologists to detect pre-malignant and malignant (cancerous) processes in the cervix.
A pap smear leads to the treatment of abnormalities that could prevent cervical cancer. The test was invented and named after the prominent Greek doctor Georgios Papanikolaou.
According to Dr. Eugene Ngoga, an Obstetrician and Gynecologist at King Faisal Hospital, Kigali, a survey that was carried out in 2010 showed that out of every 100,000 women, 49 suffered from cervical cancer.
“Last year, I carried out the Pap smear test on over 700 women and ten of these women had abnormalities; therefore, women need to consider taking the test as a priority,” Dr. Ngoga said.
During a Pap smear test, a tool is used to gather cells from the outer opening of the cervix and the endocervix in the uterus. The cells are taken to a laboratory to be examined under a microscope where any abnormality is noted.
Dr. Ngoga said that the test aims at detecting potentially pre-cancerous changes which are usually caused by sexually transmitted Human Papilloma Viruses (HPVs).
“The test remains an effective and widely used method for early detection of cervical cancer. Additionally, the test may also detect infections and abnormalities in the cervix,” he said.
In developed countries, Pap smear screening is a routine that is highly promoted by governments as a way of fighting cervical cancer. The test is highly recommended for females between the age of 25 and 65. A Pap smear should be done annually or every five years.
“Most of the women who undergo the test originally come for other gynecology issues. However, we explain to them the importance of having a Pap smear,” said Dr. Ngoga.
When results indicate signs of abnormality, another Pap smear test is conducted after six months. If the abnormality requires closer scrutiny, a patient is advised to undertake a detailed inspection of the cervix.
Most women contract HPVs soon after becoming sexually active. It takes an average of a year to detect, but can take up to four years, for a woman's immune system to control the initial infection.
Screening during this period may show this immune reaction and repair as mild abnormalities which are usually not associated with cervical cancer.
According to Dr. Ngoga, cervical cancer takes a long time to develop; therefore delaying to take the Pap smear test poses the risk of missing a potentially pre-cancerous lesion.
A Pap smear test at King Faisal Hospital is only Rwf7,000 however, an additional Rwf10,000 is paid as consultation fee.