In 2012, the U.S. and Canada changed their guidelines to recommend pap smears every three years instead of every year. But this change appears to be having an unintended effect: More cases of chlamydia are going undiagnosed, Vice reports.
The United States Preventive Services Task Force issued the new pap smear guidelines in response to concerns that frequent cervical cancer screenings can produce too many false positive results, leading people to undergo biopsies that are unnecessary and potentially harmful. But in addition to cervical cancer, pap smears screen for chlamydia. That's why a study published in the Annals of Family Medicine set out to determine whether fewer pap smears also led to fewer chlamydia diagnoses.
The researchers analyzed the medical records of women in Ontario between 2012 and 2014. In accordance with the revised recommendations, women ages 15-19 got 26% fewer chlamydia screenings in 2014 than in 2012, and those ages 20-24 got 18% fewer. Unsurprisingly, fewer screenings meant fewer diagnoses. 17% fewer women ages 15-19 and 14% fewer women ages 20-24 got diagnosed with chlamydia in 2014 than in 2012. Study author Michelle Naimer, M.D. told Stat News that this decrease in diagnoses probably doesn't mean fewer people are getting chlamydia. It just means fewer are aware of it.
Although many have relied on pap smears for chlamydia testing, they're actually not necessary for it: Urine tests are just as effective. "This study highlights the need to separate STI screening recommendations for females from cervical cancer screening recommendations," the paper concludes.
Chlamydia is important to diagnose because if untreated, it could lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, difficulties getting pregnant, pregnancy-related complications, and increased risk for HIV. But it is curable. So, whether or not you're getting a pap smear every year, you should make sure to get some sort of chlamydia test once a year, in accordance with the CDC's recommendations.