As early as December 2017, changes will be made as to how preventative screening for cervical cancer will be carried out in Australia.
Pap smears will be phased out in favour of HPV (Human Papilloma Virus) tests. This test looks for the presence of the HPV which causes approximately 99% of cervical cancer cases. It is a more accurate test which can detect potential problems earlier.
The change to this type of testing means that screening frequency will change from every five years instead of every two. The screening age bracket also increases to between 25 and 74 years (as opposed to 18 to 69 years with the current Pap tests).
The test experience is much the same as a Pap smear screen with the differences taking place after the test sample has been taken. There is however also a potential that self-screening could be an option for women in particular situations.
It is important to note that even women who have had the HPV vaccination will still need to have a HPV test every five years. This is because the HPV vaccination which is given to boys and girls aged between 12 and 14 years protects against the two most common types of HPV – but not all.
A positive testing to the HPV is not the same as a cancer diagnosis. HPV is a common virus with most women clearing the virus naturally. However if persistent, abnormal cell changes can occur, leading to cancer.
If the test detects a HPV infection, the sample would then undergo another test called a reflex liquid-based cytology (LBC) to look for abnormal cell changes. If the results of this test return positive the patient can be closely monitored for any further cell changes as part of her screening routine.
Women should continue with their current screening routine to have their first HPV test 2 years after their last Pap test. They will then continue their HPV screening routine to be tested every five years.
A federal Department of Health spokeswoman has made assurances that screening every five years with the HPV test is just as effective, if not more, than screening every two years with a Pap smear test.
Concerns about raising the age for screening to start from 18 to 25 have also been raised; however cervical cancer is rare in women under the age of 25. Furthermore, screening in that younger age group did not reduce the number of cases or deaths from cervical cancer.
Australia will be one of the first countries to use the test for cervical screening. Dr Michael Gannon, the president of the Australian Medical Association (AMA) says that “This is a good news story. It’s government listening to the experts.”
You can read more about the changes: here.