Australia's new cervical cancer screening program: your FAQs answered
1 December 2017
Australia has long been at the forefront of cancer prevention, and we are excited by the launch of the new cervical cancer screening program that will mean fewer tests over a woman's lifetime, coupled with earlier diagnoses and lower cervical cancer rates.
The change brings about major benefits for Australian women. Most will be heartened to learn that after your first test, it is needed only once every five years, instead of the two-yearly Pap smear test, and young women only need to join the program once they turn 25, compared to the previous recommendation of 18-20 years.
It will have a big impact on Australian women's health, too, as Cancer Council shows that the changes will reduce cervical cancer rates and deaths by at least 20%.
We know that women will have a lot of questions about the program and how it will help prevent cervical cancer, so Cancer Council has set up a website (cervicalscreening.org.au) to give you all the information you need.
In the meantime, here are the answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about the new program.
Why is the test changing?
After the old Pap smear program was introduced in 1991, cervical cancer rates halved in the first 10 years. But as time went on, the numbers stayed the same - although Australia has one of the lowest cervical cancer rates in the world, it seemed the Pap smear program had reached its limits. As a result, researchers looked at different ways of testing that will have even better results for Australian women.
How is the new test different?
The old Pap smear test looked for cervical cells that had already started changing to become cancerous. Because of this, women needed a test every two years to keep on top of any changes occurring in the body.
The new test is different as it looks for human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a very common infection which usually shows no symptoms and goes away by itself, but in some cases it can stay in the body and cause abnormal cells to develop on the cervix. Over time, these cells can develop into cervical cancer. As a result, the new test looks for the infection that could turn cells into cancer a step earlier than the Pap smear test could.
The test is still collected in the same way as the old Pap smear test, by your doctor.
Why is the test only needed once every five years?
You should have your first HPV screening test two years after your last pap test. After that, if you have a negative HPV result, you can wait five years before your next cervical screening test.
The time between getting a HPV infection and then having the infection possibly turn into cervical cancer is very long - even if you were infected the day after your HPV test, it's extremely unlikely it would develop into cancer in the next five years. It's very likely your body would clear the virus on its own in the meantime - and if it didn't, it would be picked up at your next screening test.
Remember that all screening programs are designed for women without symptoms, so if you notice any abnormal vaginal bleeding or pain, you should see a doctor. It doesn't matter how old you are or how long it's been since your last test.
Why has the starting age changed from 18 to 25?
Cervical cancer in young women is extremely rare, and screening tests - like the old Pap smear or the new program - aren't effective in preventing these rare cases.
In addition, cervical abnormalities among women younger than 25 have been dropping since the HPV vaccination program was introduced in 2007. This means that cervical cancer itself will become even more rare in women younger than 25.
I've had the HPV vaccination, do I still need to have the test?
Yes, you'll still need the test if you've had your vaccinations. While the vaccine protects against some high-risk types of HPV, it doesn't protect against them all - and no vaccine is 100% effective.
How much does it cost?
Women eligible for the test don't have to pay for it, but your doctor will charge their standard fee for the appointment.
What about cervical cancer that's not caused by HPV?
Almost all cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV. There is a very rare type of cervical cancer that's not caused by HPV, but there is no suitable screening test for it - Pap smears won't pick it up either. This rare cervical cancer type is usually found when women report symptoms like pain and abnormal bleeding.
Learn more about the new program at cervicalscreening.org.au.