Treatments and tests

Changes to cervical screening

On 1 December 2017 the National Cervical Screening Program (NCSP) will change. At this time:

  • the Pap smear will be replaced with a more accurate Cervical Screening Test
  • the time between tests will change from 2 to 5 years
  • the age at which screening starts will increase from 18 to 25 years
  • women aged 25 to 74 years will be invited to screen when they are due.

These changes are the result of a rigorous review of the latest medical research, scientific developments and evidence relating to cervical cancer. The changes to the program are expected to result in a 30% reduction in cervical cancer cases and deaths.

It is important to note that these changes will not take place before 1 December 2017. Until then, your best protection against cervical cancer is having a Pap smear, and attending any follow-up, when you are due.

Why is cervical screening changing?

The changes are the result of a rigorous review by the Medical Services Advisory Committee (MSAC). This review was critical because since the National Cervical Screening Program started in 1991 our understanding of cervical cancer and its prevention has greatly improved. We now know that human papillomavirus (HPV) is a necessary first step in the development of cervical abnormalities and cervical cancer. Additionally, the evidence shows that screening with a Cervical Screening Test every 5 years is more effective than, and just as safe as, screening with a Pap smear every 2 years.

What should women do between now and 1 December 2017

To minimise their risk of cervical cancer, it is important that women continue to have a Pap smear, or attend follow-up, when they are due. For most women this will be 2 years after their last Pap smear.

It is important to remember that women of any age who have symptoms such as unusual bleeding, discharge or pain should see their health care provider immediately.

How will the new Cervical Screening Test work?

The new Cervical Screening Test looks for human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. HPV infections can cause abnormal cervical cell changes that may lead to cervical cancer. This usually takes a long time, about 10 to 15 years.

The procedure for having a Cervical Screening Test is the same as the procedure for having a Pap smear. A health care professional will collect a small sample of cells from the woman’s cervix. The sample will be sent to a pathology laboratory for examination.

While the current Pap smear looks for any abnormal cell changes, the new Cervical Screening Test will look for the HPV infection that can cause abnormal cell changes. If HPV is found, the same cervical sample is then tested for the presence of abnormal cervical cells (similar to the Pap smear). Since the Cervical Screening Test is more accurate than the Pap smear, women with a ‘HPV negative’ (or ‘HPV not detected’) test result will only need to screen every 5 years.

Why will screening start at 25 years of age?

The age to start screening will increase to 25 years because:

  • cervical cancer in young women is rare
  • despite screening women less than 25 years of age for over 20 years there has been no change to the number of cases or deaths from cervical cancer in this age group
  • treating common cervical abnormalities in young women that would usually resolve by themselves can increase the risk of pregnancy complications later in life
  • studies show that delaying screening until the age of 25 is safe (and has been safely implemented in other countries).

It is important to remember that women of any age who have symptoms such as unusual bleeding, discharge or pain should see their health care provider immediately.

What is human papillomavirus (HPV)?

The human papillomavirus (HPV) is a common infection in females and males. Four out of five people will have HPV at some point in their lives. Most HPV infections are naturally cleared by the body’s immune system in about 2 years without causing any problems.

There are more than 100 different types of HPV that can affect different parts of the body. Around 50 types can infect the genital area, including the cervix. Genital HPV is spread during sexual activity.

Genital HPV infections can cause cervical cell abnormalities. If the body does not clear the virus, these abnormal cells can progress and this may lead to cervical cancer. This usually takes a long time – about 10 to 15 years.

A Cervical Screening Test will look for the presence of HPV and, if found, look for any cervical cell abnormalities. This allows for monitoring and if needed, treatment of these abnormalities, to prevent cervical cancer.

It is important to remember that most women who have HPV clear the virus and do not go on to develop cervical cancer.

What is the relationship between human papillomavirus (HPV) and cervical cancer?

Infection with one or more cancer-causing types of HPV is the main cause of cervical cancer. Nearly all cervical cancers are caused by HPV infection.

Genital HPV infections can cause cervical cell abnormalities. If the body does not clear the virus, these abnormal cells can progress to cervical cancer. This usually takes a long time – about 10 to 15 years.

A Cervical Screening Test will look for the presence of HPV and, if found, look for any cervical cell abnormalities. This allows for monitoring and if needed, treatment of these abnormalities, to prevent cervical cancer.

Do I still need to screen if I have received the HPV vaccine?

Yes. The HPV vaccine does not protect against all types of HPV infection that are known to cause cervical cancer. All women, regardless of whether or not they have had the HPV vaccine, need to screen.

Where to get help

  • See your doctor
  • Visit a GP after hours
  • Ring healthdirect on 1800 022 222

This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.