Ladies, listen up! Pap tests are changing for the better

From December 1st, women will no longer be advised to have Pap tests every two years. Instead, new cervical cancer screening recommendations involve a new type of test, every five years.

How are pap smears changing?

In what’s being marked as the biggest change to women’s health in 25 years, the National Cervical Screening Program in Australia is changing.

Currently, women aged 18 to 69 are recommended to have a Pap test every two years.

But, from December 1st this year, the test itself is changing from a pap test to a Primary HPV test, and women will only be required to have it every five years.

The age range is changing too, with the age at which cervical screening starts being pushed back from 18 years, to 25 years.

How accurate are the new cervical screening tests?

The Australian Cervical Cancer Foundation (ACCF) says the new cervical screening test is more accurate and effective, and will save lives.

“It is estimated that there will be a decrease in at least 15% of deaths from cervical cancer from the introduction of this new test,” says the ACCF’s Leisa Ashton.

The new HPV test picks up warning signs earlier than a Pap test, which is why the time length between tests has been extended.

“A new National Cancer Screening Register will be launched so women will receive their invitations, reminders and follow up correspondence about their Cervical Screening from this new national register,” says Leisa.

Dr Kate Haggar, Medical Director of the Bupa Health Team, says the new screening test looks for the infection that can lead to cancer, rather than the changes in cells that occur after infection.

Based on new evidence and better technology being used, we know that HPV testing is just as safe, and more effective, for early detection of cervical abnormalities than the Pap smear. 
Dr Kate Haggar, Medical Director, Bupa Health Team

"Because the HPV test will identify those women at higher risk of developing cervical cancer earlier, it means that those women can be monitored more closely and treated when necessary,” she says.

“If a woman has a negative result, they do not need to be screened as often, because the time needed to progress from a new infection with HPV, to cancerous changes can be between 10-15yrs.”

How do the new Primary HPV tests work?

A Primary HPV test is conducted the same way as a pap test, with the health care professional taking a small sample of cells from the woman’s cervix.

“When detected at an early stage, the five-year survival rate for women with invasive cervical cancer is 91%. About 46% of women with cervical cancer are diagnosed at an early stage. If cervical cancer has spread to surrounding tissues or organs and/or the regional lymph nodes, the five-year survival rate is 57%,” says Dr Haggar.

“This means that you can almost double your survival risk by catching the cancer early.”

Until December 1st, women should continue having their regular pap test when it’s due.

Even if you have been vaccinated for HPV you still need to participate in cervical screening – the vaccine does not protect against all the types of HPV that cause cervical cancer.
Dr Kate Haggar, Medical Director, Bupa Health Team

“The cervical screening program is just that – screening. That means we are testing women who have no symptoms, looking for early changes in cells, or signs of infection, so that we can monitor or treat them, before a cancer develops too far.

“If a woman does have symptoms (such as unusual vaginal discharge, pain with intercourse, abnormal bleeding such as after menopause, between periods, or bleeding after intercourse) they should consult their doctor so a diagnostic test can be arranged. A diagnostic test gives a definite answer as to whether a woman has cell changes suggestive of pre-cancer or cancer.”

As part of National Cervical Cancer Awareness Week, from November 13 – 19, women are encouraged to think about if they’re up to date with their Pap tests.

The ACCF is encouraging women to make a commitment to get up-to-date with their cervical screening and to paint their nails orange in support of being on top of their cervical health.

“If one of the reasons you are not up-to-date is that you find cervical screening uncomfortable, the ACCF has launched a Comfort Checklist. This is something you can print and take to your doctor to discuss how to make your cervical screening as comfortable as possible,” says Leisa.

Major landmarks around Australia will be lit orange during the week including: Story Bridge in Brisbane, Telstra Tower in Canberra and the Melbourne Town Hall.