The least anticipated social event on any woman’s calendar is her date with the doctor for a pap smear. However, it is an important one. Somewhere in the world, a woman dies from this serious yet highly preventable disease every 2 minutes.
The Australian Government introduced changes to cervical cancer screening that came into effect 1st December 2017. The testing is more accurate, less frequent, and is expected to prevent an additional 140 cases of cervical cancer each year and protect up to 30% more women.
Firstly, the pap test has now been renamed the “Cervical Screening Test”, as the screening is now searching for the presence of HPV (Human Papillomavirus), rather than abnormal cell changes in the cervix. HPV infections are known to cause 99% of cervical cancer cases. Despite the new name, the sample collection process is the same, so the procedure will feel very similar.
Secondly, the screening will occur every five years instead of every two. However, if you have recently had a pap smear, you will still need to undergo your first Cervical Screening Test two years after your last normal pap test. If the jump from two years to five years has you scared that you may forget to get tested, you can register with the Australian Cervical Cancer Foundation for a personal SMS reminder.
More good news for young women is that the recommended testing age has increased from 18 to 25 years old. These changes have been made on the basis that cervical cancer is rare in young women, both HPV vaccinated and unvaccinated. However, for those who thought the finish line was in sight, cervical cancer screening no longer ends at 69 and will now continue until the age of 74.
Women who have received the HPV vaccination are not exempt from screening. The current HPV vaccine only protects against 70-80% of cervical cancers. Even if you are vaccinated, it is not 100% protection. Also, HPV is a very common infection, with around 80% of people having an HPV infection at some point in their lives.
Both doctor consultation and laboratory testing are fully covered by Medicare.
Cervical testing can be uncomfortable and a hassle, but this screening is an important part of cervical cancer prevention. These new changes are expected to streamline the process and make it more accurate, which is good news for all women.
If you have any questions regarding the new Cervical Screening Program, contact your GP.