01 December 2017
Friday, 1 December marks the rollout of major changes to the Australian Government’s National Cervical Screening Program, which is expected to reduce cervical cancer rates and deaths by at least 20 per cent.
All women who have ever been sexually active and who are aged 25–74 years will be invited to have a Cervical Screening Test every five years which detects the presence of HPV infection—a key risk factor in the development of cervical cancer. The new test is more effective than screening with the two-yearly Pap test it replaces.
The impact of this change for Australian women is enormous.
In a nutshell, there are three main differences to understand about the Cervical Screening Test.
1. What the test looks for
Firstly, it detects the presence of human papilloma virus (HPV), which is the virus that causes almost all cervical cancers. This is in contrast to the Pap test, which detects abnormalities in the cells of the cervix.
HPV is actually very common—it is estimated that 80 per cent of people will be infected at some point. The body is usually able to clear the virus by itself, and most people will not have symptoms nor will they need any treatment.
The problem occurs when the body can’t clear the virus. If the virus remains in the body it can cause the growth of abnormal cells over many years, which may end up as cervical cancer cells. This long time period is the reason why Cervical Screening Tests are only recommended every five years.
There are over 100 strains of HPV. This test looks for the 12–14 which are known to cause cancer, particularly HPV types 16 and 18—the two most high-risk strains. If HPV is detected, then a Pap test will be performed on the same sample, and the combined results will inform the diagnostic procedure or a follow-up HPV test in 12 months’ time.
2. How often you need to get it
Not only is the Cervical Screening Test more reliable than the Pap test, it’s also less frequent, meaning that more women are more likely to adhere to the recommended schedule. Women who have ever been sexually active, and are aged between 25 and 74 will be invited to have the test every five years. That’s far less frequent than the two-yearly Pap test schedule. The procedure for women being tested remains the same—you’ll have a health care professional collect cells from your cervix.
3. When you have your first test
While previously a woman’s first cervical screening was recommended between 18 and 20 years of age, the Cervical Screening Test only needs to commence at age 25, as screening for cervical cancer prior to this age appears to not be effective. This is a move supported by Cancer Council and the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).
The Cervical Screening Test is more sensitive, more effective, safer and more convenient than the Pap test. The transition from Pap to the Cervical Screening Test is simple—you’ll be due for your first appointment two years after your last Pap test, assuming your last result was normal. Women who have had a previous abnormal result may have been recommended to return prior to this. All women who have had a Pap test in the past two years will receive an invitation to attend their first Cervical Screening Test. Anyone who has gone longer than two years without getting checked should contact their GP and ask to have their first Cervical Screening Test as soon as possible. Women who have received the HPV vaccine will still need to undergo screening, as these vaccines only protect against 70 per cent of cervical cancers.
Women of any age who have symptoms such as unusual bleeding, discharge or pain should see their health care professional immediately, regardless of when they were last screened. To answer any questions you might have about the new Cervical Screening Test, visit cervicalscreening.org.au.
Education & Information Manager
Cancer Council SA