About the program

When will the program change, and why?

On 1 December 2017, Australia switched to a renewed cervical cancer screening program. So what does this mean for you, and what do you need to know so that you can be fully informed about the changes?

 

Making a good program even better

Since Australia’s cervical cancer screening program was introduced in 1991, the rate of cervical cancer cases and deaths in Australian women has halved.

However, over the last 10 years the rate of new cervical cancer cases and deaths has stopped dropping. Although Australia has one of the lowest rates of cervical cancer in the world, the Pap smear test screening program has reached its limits. And now new technology means there is an even better test available. A study of 175,000 women found testing for HPV provides much greater protection than Pap smear tests against the development of invasive cervical cancer.

In Australia we also now have a HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine (Gardasil) program, offered to high school-aged boys and girls. This is helping reduce the risk of cervical cancer in our younger generations of women.

With a new test and our vaccination program, our chances of preventing and finding cervical cancer are even better.

A safer, more effective test

The new cervical screening program means that cervical cancer prevention in Australia will become even more effective.

The changes include:

  • the test – the new screening test will now look for HPV (which causes almost all cervical cancers), not just abnormal cells (like the Pap smear test did)
  • how often it’s needed – a better test means you will only need to screen every five years
  • the starting age – the first test will be done at 25, rather than 18-20.

Australian research has shown that the renewed program, with its more accurate and effective test, will lower the rate of cervical cancer cases and deaths by at least 20%.


What is HPV?

HPV stands for human papillomavirus.

HPV is a very common sexually transmitted infection which usually shows no symptoms and goes away by itself.

The virus is passed on by intimate genital skin-to-skin contact, and can infect both men and women. It is not passed on by semen, blood or saliva.

HPV can still be passed on if a condom is used, as condoms do not cover all the genital skin. You can get HPV the first time you are sexually active, and from having only one sexual partner.

There are many different types of HPV – they are categorised as ‘low-risk’ or ‘high-risk’. Low-risk HPV types cause genital warts and do not cause cancer, while high-risk HPV types can cause serious illness including cancer (although this is rare). The highest risk HPV types are HPV16 and HPV18 – these two types cause 70% of all cervical cancers.


Why test for HPV?

In most cases, your body’s immune system will clear HPV in 6-12 months. But sometimes this doesn’t happen –  there’s a higher chance of it not clearing when the infection is a high-risk type of virus. We call this long-term or persistent HPV infection.

Persistent HPV infection can cause abnormal cells to develop on the cervix. Over a long time, these abnormal cells may develop into cervical cancer if left untreated.

Cervical cancer is the most common type of cancer caused by HPV. Persistent infection also causes less common cancers in men and women, like anal, vulvar, vaginal, mouth/throat and penile cancers.

What about non-HPV related cervical cancers?

Almost all cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV; this is the biggest risk factor for cervical cancer.

Other factors that increase the risk in women who are already infected with HPV include smoking or immune deficiencies like HIV.

Some very rare types of cervical cancer are not caused by HPV. At the moment there is not a suitable screening test for these types of cervical cancer. Neither the Pap smear test nor the new HPV test are effective in detecting these types of rare cervical cancers.

These types of cervical cancers are usually found when women report symptoms like pain and abnormal bleeding. Anyone who has symptoms should see a doctor without delay – it doesn’t matter how old you are or how long it’s been since your last Cervical Screening Test.

Women who were exposed to diethylstilbestrol in utero (that is, while they were in their mother’s womb) are at increased risk of cervical cancer, and will have tailored screening.  Diethylstilbestrol (or DES) is an artificial form of the female hormone oestrogen that in the past was prescribed to some women during pregnancy. 


How is the new test different to a Pap smear test?

The new test looks for the infection that could eventually turn cervical cells into cervical cancer one step earlier than the Pap smear test could.

Both tests take a sample of cells from the cervix. In the Pap smear test, scientists use a microscope to look for precancerous changes to the cells. This is why the Pap smear test needs to be done every two years.

Instead of looking for changes to the cells of the cervix, the new HPV Cervical Screening Test allows scientists to look for the virus that causes the cell changes in the first place.

HPV testing looks for the virus inside the cervical cells, which means doctors can find women who could be at risk of developing cervical cancer in the future.

If HPV is found, the scientists will do a liquid-based cytology test (a form of the Pap test) on the same sample of cells. Women will get follow-up treatment based on the results of both tests.


Who should have a HPV test?

Cancer Council recommends that all women aged 25-74 should have a HPV screening test every five years, even if you have been vaccinated for HPV.

Find out more about what this means for you:

I’m under 25 

I’m over 25 

I come from a culturally diverse community 

I’m an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander 

I have a disability

I’m LGBTIQ

 


What if I have symptoms?

A Cervical Screening Test is a test for women who do not have symptoms.

If you have symptoms such as pain, abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge, always see your doctor straight away – regardless of your age.

If you are over 25 and not due for your next screening test, but are experiencing symptoms, still see your doctor immediately even if your last screening test was normal.

What does the test cost?

Women eligible for cervical cancer screening do not need to pay for the screening test, but your doctor will charge their standard consultation fee for the appointment.

Some doctors, clinics and health centres offer bulk billing, which means there are no out-of-pocket expenses. You can check if there will be any cost to you when you make your appointment.


Useful links and information

Resources for women

If you are looking for more information on cervical cancer screening, you might find the following links useful. You can also contact Cancer Council on 13 11 20.

Resources about the change


Understanding your screening results  


Information about HPV and cervical cancer


State-based information