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Cervical cancer screening - what is changing and how will it affect you

Monday 21 August 2017

A drawing of women standing in a group, all different ages and ethnicities.
The Cervical Cancer Screening Program will change from 1 December.

From 1 December this year, the National Cervical Cancer Screening Program will change. Instead of a Pap test every two years, women aged 25 to 74 will be invited to have a Cervical Screening Test every five years.

Not only is the change in schedule good news, but the new test will also allow for improved early detection of possible cancer-causing human papillomavirus infections and save the lives of more Australian women.

Why is it changing?

The Cervical Screening Test has been created based on new evidence and better technology. It can detect human papillomavirus (HPV) earlier than the current Pap test, meaning it is a better tool for preventing cervical cancer.

How does it work?

The Cervical Screening Test is conducted in the same way as the current Pap test. A small sample of cells is taken from the woman’s cervix, which is then sent to a pathology laboratory for testing.

Cervical cancer can be caused by changes to the cells of the cervix, often bought on by persistent HPV infections.

While the current Pap test is only able to detect abnormal cell changes in the cervix, the new Cervical Screening Test is able to detect HPV itself, possibly before abnormal cell changes occur. This means that the new test is able to identify potential cancer-causing infections much earlier than the Pap test.

Why five years instead of two?

Ongoing HPV infections can cause the abnormal cell changes in a woman’s cervix that may lead to cervical cancer. The process takes a long time, however, often longer than 10 years. This means that screening for HPV infections using the Cervical Screening Test every five years should identify a HPV infection before a woman is at risk of developing cervical cancer.

Why will the initial screening age raise to 25?

Even though the current Pap test is recommended every two years for women over the age of 18, screening in this age group conducted over the past 20 years has resulted in no change in the rates of cervical cancer or cervical cancer death in women aged younger than 25.

Cervical cancer is rare in women younger than 25, however the cells of the cervix do naturally change throughout life, including in young women. Investigating and treating cervical cell changes that would normally have resolved on their own may increase the risk of pregnancy complications later in life.

Women younger than 25 should ensure they have had the HPV vaccine, which is expected to reduce cervical cancer rates for this age group.

How will I know when to have the new test?

Women aged 25 – 74 will be invited to have  their first Cervical Screening Test two years after their last Pap test, then repeat every five years. Even if you have had the HPV vaccine, you still need to have regular Cervical Screening Tests, as the vaccine does not prevent all types of HPV infections that can cause cervical cancer.

When you are due for your test, you will receive an invitation from the National Cervical Screening Register, reminding you to book an appointment.

More information

You can read more about the changes to the National Cervical Cancer Screening Program and the HPV vaccine at the links below. 

National Cervical Screening Program

Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination

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Last updated: 24 January 2018