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What you need to know about changes to the Pap smear test

changes to pap tests

You have probably heard by now that the historical ‘pap test’ has now changed in Australia. Below we cover what you need to know about the changes and what this then means for you.

As of December last year, Pap Smears are not quite the same!

Cervical cancer screening in Australia has changed from two- yearly pap testing to five- yearly HPV testing. Although the examination is basically unchanged, pathology now will be looking for HPV (human papilloma virus), the virus that causes cervical cancer in 99% of cases.

Less often, more accurate

What’s changed: A Snap Shot

  • You'll be tested every five years, instead of every two

  • You won't start having tests until you're 25 years old, up from 18 years old

  • Self-collection using vaginal swabs will be an option for some women

  • Tests will now continue until you're 74, instead of stopping when you turn 69

Cervical screening as a routine only is available for 25-74 years and will now be performed only every 5 years. This sounds like a long time, but it takes 5-10 years for the virus to cause cancerous changes.

Why the switch?

The switch in testing is more accurate and expected to reduce cervical cancer rates by up 30%, and therefore resulting in fewer deaths and less anxiety for women about to have a pap test.

How is the Cervical Screening Test different to the Pap test?

The method of sample collection is the same in both the Pap test and the Cervical Screening Test – so if you’ve had a Pap test before, you won’t notice any difference at your screening appointment.

A Pap test (or Pap smear) looked for cells in the cervix that had changed or become abnormal. The Cervical Screening Test looks for HPV – the infection that causes these cell changes.

Do you still have to have the test if you're HPV vaccinated?

Yes. Even if you've had the HPV vaccine, you could still get it, and should be tested.

The vaccine, which is given to girls and boys aged between 12 and 14 as part of Australia's National HPV Vaccination Program, protects against the two most common types of HPV — but not all.

Do other countries screen this way?

While many countries are considering the change, Australia will be one of the first in the world to change from pap test to HPV tests.

More about HPV:

HPV: the cancer-causing virus

  • HPV is a sexually transmitted infection

  • Up to 80 per cent of adults will be infected at some point

  • More than 120 HPV viruses are known to infect skin and mucous membranes

  • Many carriers do not know they are infected and fight off the infection without symptoms

  • Some HPV types cause warts — such as flat warts, genital warts, and plantar warts

  • 20 HPV virus types cause cancers including cervical, head and neck, penile, vulva and vagina, anal, and skin

  • Not everyone infected with those HPV types develops cancer

  • Most of those cancer cases are caused by HPV16 or HPV18

  • In 2002, WHO estimated HPV caused 5.2 per cent of all cancers worldwide

What else can I do to prevent cervical cancer?

• Take actions to decrease your risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection (STI); for example, always using condoms

• Consider the HPV vaccine. If you were not vaccinated as part of the school-based program, speak to your GP about whether this option is right for you

• Quitting smoking (or never starting) is a key step in protecting yourself against, and reducing your risk of, cervical cancer

It is an exciting era that we now enter and a great step forward for women’s health in Australia.

Please speak with your GP and they will be happy to answer any questions you may have regarding these changes. Our new female GP at Mariners Medical, Dr Sarah Gunn is welcoming new patients now!

Women of any age who experience symptoms, such as pain or unusual bleeding, should speak to their doctor or nurse immediately and not wait for their next Cervical Screening Test.

You can also contact our highly experienced and caring Women’s Health nurses who will be happy to assist you with any queries or concerns.

More information

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