By Karen Canfell, Adjunct professor, UNSW;
Megan Smith, Program Manager – Cervix/ HPV Group, Cancer Council NSW, University of Sydney.
As has been much discussed, women will now start testing at age 25 with a test for the human papillomavirus (HPV), then be tested every five years until they are aged 70-74.
Even though the more sensitive HPV screening program will only screen women around ten times in their lifetime (instead of the current 26 times), it will save more lives.
It’s expected to reduce the number of new cases of cervical cancer and deaths from cervical cancer by at least 20 per cent.
The new screening program should also make it easier for women who have missed out on screening (or have skipped a few Pap smears) to take part.
That’s a sizable number of women. At least one million Australian women are more than a year overdue for cervical screening. And only about 60 per cent of women are screened every two years as recommended, a statistic that hasn’t moved in over a decade.
What makes reaching under-screened women so important is these are the ones most likely to be diagnosed with cervical cancer. About two-thirds of all cervical cancers are found in women who have never been screened or are more than 18 months overdue for screening.
Jana Pittman talks to Mia Freedman about the symptoms women need to look out for when it comes to gynaecological cancer. Post continues below.
Easier to be screened
From this month, under-screened women should find it easier to be screened for two main reasons.
First, a new reminder system will invite all women for screening by letter on their 25th birthday, and every five years after their first HPV test. The current system only reminds women if they’re already late for screening.
Second, from next year there will be a new option offered specifically to under-screened women. Unlike the old Pap smear, which a GP or nurse collected, some women will have the option of collecting their own sample for testing (known as “self-collection”).
In trials, women who have never been screened or who are under-screened are more likely to take part in cervical cancer screening if they are offering “self-collection” rather than the reminder letters used in our current system.
Why don’t women get screened?
There are many reasons women are not screened regularly enough (or at all). These include feeling embarrassed, fearful or anxious about the procedure, perhaps after a bad experience in the past. Others say they’re unaware of the importance of cervical screening, or are too busy to make an appointment.
For Aboriginal women, difficulty accessing culturally appropriate health services and education, or limited access due to remoteness are only a few factors in a complex picture of under-screening.
We know from a recent study using Queensland data that for at least a decade fewer than 40 per cent of Indigenous women have been screened every two years.