Pap smears out, HPV tests in

Big changes to the National Cervical Screening Program are set to roll out at the end of the year

From 1 December 2017, the two-yearly Pap test for women aged 18-69 will change to a five-yearly human papillomavirus (HPV) test for women aged 25-74.

The procedure for collecting the sample for HPV testing is the same as the procedure for having a Pap smear, with a healthcare professional taking a small sample of cells from the woman’s cervix.

But while the current Pap test can detect abnormal cell changes, the new cervical screening test will detect the HPV infection that can cause the abnormal cell changes prior to the development of cancer.

Persistent HPV infections can cause abnormal cell changes that December lead to cervical cancer, says the Health Department, although this can often take more than 10 years.

“It’s important to note that well over 90% of cervical cancers are caused by HPV,” Megan Smith, program manager at Cervix/HPV and Breast Group at Cancer Council NSW tells the Huffington Post Australia.

From 1 December, women will be invited to screen from 25 years of age instead of 18 years of age. The Department of Health explains the change is based on evidence that:

  • cervical cancer in young women is rare (in both HPV vaccinated and unvaccinated women);
  • despite screening women younger than 25 years of age for over 20 years there has been no change to the rates of cervical cancer or rates of death from cervical cancer in this age group;
  • investigating and treating common cervical abnormalities in young women that would usually resolve by themselves can increase the risk of pregnancy complications later in life;
  • the HPV vaccination has already been shown to reduce cervical abnormalities among women younger than 25 years of age and, in contrast to screening, is ultimately expected to reduce cervical cancer in this age group.

The National Cervical Screening Register will send an invitation to women to let them know they are due for their test and also remind women if they become overdue for their regular test.

All women who have received the HPV vaccine are still required to participate in the screening program since the vaccine does not protect against all types of HPV infection known to cause cervical cancer.

Meanwhile the Health Department urges women to continue to participate in the current two-yearly Pap test program until 1 December.

It adds that women of any age who have symptoms such as unusual bleeding, discharge and pain should see their health care professional immediately.

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