OK ladies, this one’s for you. It might not be fun, but it has to be done: the pap smear. The mere mention makes us cringe, but it’s a very important screening test.
Since 1991, Aussies having regular pap smears under the cervical screening program have more than halved mortality rates from cervical cancer. However, with the introduction in 2006 of a vaccine for the cancer-causing human papilloma virus (HPV), some changes have been made to the screening program.
So what’s changed?
Unlike the old pap smear test which looked for abnormal cells in the cervix, the new test looks for human papilloma virus (which causes almost all cases of cervical cancer). The new Cervical Screening Test commenced in December 2017 and it’s expected to protect up to 30 per cent more women than the test it replaced.
Women will now begin their lifelong screening from age 25 (instead of 18) and continue until age 74 (instead of 69).
The best news is that after you have your first HPV screening test (with normal results), you don’t need your next one for another five years! That’s much easier to handle than the old two-yearly testing regime – roughly 10 tests in your lifetime instead of 26!
What is cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer is almost always caused by the presence of the HPV virus. HPV is a common virus that can cause changes to the cells in your cervix. If left untreated, in rare cases it can develop into cervical cancer.
An HPV infection will typically clear from the body in one or two years. A persistent HPV infection will take from 10 to 15 years to develop into cervical cancer.
Symptoms of cervical cancer can include unusual vaginal discharge, bleeding or pain during sex.
It is not clear what causes the rare forms of cervical cancer – these cancers cannot be detected by either the Pap test or the Cervical Screening Test.
Why get jabbed?
The HPV vaccination (most commonly given in school to teenagers) protects you from up to 90 per cent of HPV types that can cause several cancers. These cancers include anal, cervical, throat, penile, vaginal and vulval.
Girls and boys aged up to 19 can receive two doses in the upper arm for free as part of the National HPV Vaccination Program.
Vaccines are typically given to students in year 7 or 8, depending on your state or territory.
How often should I get tested?
You should have regular Cervical Screening Tests every five years between the ages of 25 to 74 years of age.
You still need to have the tests even if you are not sexually active or if you have gone through menopause.
If at any stage you have unusual vaginal bleeding, discharge or pain, see your doctor.
Your GP can perform the Cervical Screening Test for you, or a specialist like your gynecologist. For more information contact the National Cervical Screening Program on 131 556.