A big change in how cervical cancer is detected in Australia is on the way. Starting from 1 May 2017, a new and different screening test to replace the current Pap test will be introduced, with screening starting from age 25 and conducted every five years. While the test will change, the method for collecting taking a cervical tissue sample will not.
Until these changes come into effect, the key message for Australian women ahead of this date is to not stop regular two-yearly Pap smears. It is also important to remember that all women should consider cervical screening whether they have had human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccinations or not. HPV vaccines protect against the viruses responsible for most cervical cancers, but not all of them.
NPS MedicineWise and the Australian Department of Health have embarked on a program to inform health professionals and the public of the upcoming changes to the National Cervical Screening Program (NCSP).
"It will be welcome news for many women that in a couple of years they'll only need cervical cancer screening every five years because of the introduction of the new test instead of the current two years. But, for your best health outcome, do not stop or delay having your regular Pap smear ahead of the change," says Dr Robyn Lindner from NPS MedicineWise.
How is the National Cervical Screening Program changing?
From 1 May 2017, the national program changes to testing for the human papillomavirus (HPV) as the primary screening method. An HPV test is a laboratory-based test used to detect the presence of human papillomavirus in a cervical tissue sample.
Dr Lindner says that Australia has very low incidence of new cervical cancer cases and deaths, attributable to the national screening program which has been running for the past 24 years.
"We'll be the second country in the world after the Netherlands to incorporate primary HPV testing into the national screening program. The program will continue to enable early detection and treatment of cervical cell abnormalities, and will better identify women at risk of pre-cancerous changes and cervical cancer," she says.
The key changes to the program include:
replacing the current screening method"a Pap smear"with an HPV test
extending the time between screening tests from two to five years for women who have a negative HPV test
increasing the age when screening starts from 18 years to 25 years
allowing women who have not attended screening regularly, or ever, to self-collect a vaginal sample.
How do these changes benefit Australian women?
Women aged between 25 years and 74 years old in May 2017 will be eligible to take part in the renewed program. MBS subsidies will be made available in May 2017 when the program is introduced. Women that have a negative result will be sent an invitation for screening in five years' time.
"This also means fewer screening tests over your lifetime, from about 26 with Pap smears, down to nine or 10 with the new program," says Dr Lindner.
What if you've had the HPV vaccination?
Being vaccinated does not exclude women from the program, as the vaccine does not protect against all the types of HPV that cause cervical cancer.
Most importantly, until the new program is started in May 2017 women still need to have their regular two-yearly Pap smear if they are aged between 18 and 69. According to Dr Lindner, "women need to start to be aware of the upcoming changes to cervical testing screening, but it's definitely business as usual for now with Pap smears. However, do start to ask your health professional any questions you have in the lead up to the change."
NPS MedicineWise today publishes online the latest Medicine Update, providing information to women about the planned changes to the National Cervical Screening Program, available at www.nps.org.au/medicineupdate. Health professionals across Australia are receiving detailed information about the changes in a special edition of the NPS MedicineWise publication NPS RADAR available at www.nps.org.au/radar.