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To compare the performance of human papillomavirus DNA tests (samples collected by a healthcare professional and self-collected) and liquid-based cytology with conventional cytology in the detection of cervix uteri cancer and its precursor lesions. A cross-sectional study was carried out in 1777 women living in poor communities in Rio de Janeiro State, Brazil. Eligibility criteria included ages 25–59 years and not having had a Papanicolau test within at least 3 years prior to the study. Cytology (conventional or liquid-based) and human papillomavirus DNA (collected by a healthcare professional or self-collected) tests were performed using samples collected in a single visit. Women with abnormalities in at least one test and a systematic sample of 70 women with negative test results were referred to a colposcopic examination. Test readings were double-masked, and the outcome of interest was high-grade squamous intraepithelial lesion or worse. The pathology report was used as the gold standard. The prevalence of high-grade squamous intraepithelial lesion or worse was 2.0%. Human papillomavirus DNA test collected by a health professional alone or combined with conventional cytology had the highest sensitivity (91.4 and 97.1%, respectively). The highest specificity was found for conventional cytology (91.6%) and for a human papillomavirus DNA test collected by a healthcare professional (90.2%). On the basis of only test performance, the use of human papillomavirus DNA tests, alone or combined with cytology, would seem to be recommended. Its population-wide implementation, however, is conditional on a cost-effectiveness analysis.