health

10 ways the pap smear process will be changing in Australia soon.

Image: iStock.

Back in May, the Federal Department of Health announced some quite significant changes to the National Cervical Screening Program.

In case you missed the news, here’s the deal: from May 2017, Aussie women will no longer have a pap smear every two years. Instead, we’ll undergo a new Human Papillomavirus (HPV) test for cervical cancer every five years.

RELATED: 11 things your doctor wishes you wouldn’t do before a pap test.

Considering 80 per cent of Australian women with cervical cancer have not been screened regularly or at all, this is an important development. No, cervical screening isn’t considered a particularly pleasant experience — but it’s crucial for the early detection and treatment of cancer, so putting it off or avoiding it altogether really isn’t an option.

If you’re curious about what these changes will entail, Pathology Awareness Australia have answered 10 of the questions you’re probably mulling over.

1. How do I get tested?

The collection process will be the same.

Despite reports last year suggesting the traditional pap smear could potentially be replaced with a urine test, the HPV test uses the same process to collect cervical samples. A doctor or practice nurse will collect the samples and send them to a pathology laboratory for testing.

2. How does the test differ?

The collection process is the same as the current pap smear, but the actual testing is quite different. Currently, samples are examined under a microscope by a pathology professional, who looks for abnormal cells that could be cancerous or pre-cancerous. The HPV test is performed by a machine, operated by pathology staff, which specifically detects HPV.

3. Why have these changes been made?

HPV is present in the majority of cervical cancer cases, so detecting it can tell doctors if a woman is at higher risk before abnormal cells appear. Thanks to the introduction of the HPV vaccine for young women and young men, Australia's younger generations actually have a lower risk of cervical cancer — the Department of Health predicts this vaccination program, in combination with the new screening, could see cervical cancer rates drop by 15 per cent. (Post continues after gallery.)

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4. Does the new test detect all types of HPV?

Yes — it will identify all types of HPV, of which there are more than 100. Two of these types — 16 and 18 — are heavily associated with cancer.

5. If I haven't had the vaccine will I still need pap tests every two years?

No. However, women who have any symptoms of possible cervical disease such as abnormal vaginal bleeding can be tested.

RELATED: What your doctor is thinking during a pap smear.

6. How often will I be tested?

Every five years, instead of every two.

7. When will the program start?

Continue with your regular pap smears until May 2017.

It's still a little while off — the new test will be available on the Medicare Benefits Schedule from 1 May 2017 — so until then, continue with your regular pap smears.

8. Why isn't the test available now?

Putting the framework and support systems in place requires some time. However, there is a Compass trial comparing the current and new screening tests, so women who are participating in that may be offered the new HPV test.

RELATED: One woman's story about what it's like living with HPV

9. What happens if the test detects HPV in my sample?

A sample will be prepared immediately to be checked under a microscope by a pathology professional. Depending on what type of HPV is found, and any other findings, you will be referred for further investigation. There is currently no anti-viral drug for HPV but many cases of it are simply tackled by the body. Persistent infections may need further action. (Post continues after gallery.)

10. I haven’t been vaccinated. If this test shows I don’t have HPV could I be given the vaccine?

No. The type of HPV test used in screening doesn’t show if a woman has had HPV in the past and her current immunity. However, if a woman is interested in vaccination at any time she should discuss this with her doctor.

As always, if you have any questions regarding cervical cancer screening, have a chat to your doctor. And if you're due for a pap smear, don't put it off — a few minutes of awkward chit-chat while lying on a GP's bed is a small price to pay for your health (and potentially your life).

What do you think of the new testing process?

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