Treatments and tests

Changes to cervical screening

  • The National Cervical Screening Program (NCSP) has recently changed.
  • The two-yearly Pap smear has been replaced with a new five-yearly Cervical Screening Test.
  • The latest medical and scientific evidence shows that having a Cervical Screening Test every 5 years is just as safe, and more effective than, having a Pap smear every 2 years.
  • All women aged 25 to 74 years who have ever been sexually active should have a Cervical Screening Test every 5 years.

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 protect up to 30% more women from cervical cancer.

Why did cervical screening change in Australia?

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.

The evidence from this review showed 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.

How does the new Cervical Screening Test work?

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.

The procedure for having a Cervical Screening Test is the same as the procedure for having a Pap smear. A healthcare provider 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 Pap smear looked for any abnormal cervical cell changes, the Cervical Screening Test looks for the HPV infection that can cause abnormal cell changes. If HPV is found, the same cervical sample is then re-tested to look for any abnormal cervical cells. 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.

What is human papillomavirus (HPV) and its relationship to cervical cancer?

HPV is a common infection and most people have HPV at some point in their lifetime.

Nearly all cervical cancers are caused by HPV. Genital HPV infections can cause cervical cell abnormalities.

Most HPV infections are naturally cleared by the body’s immune system in about 2 years without causing any problems. If the body does not clear the virus, these abnormal cervical cells can progress and this may lead to cervical cancer. This usually takes a long time, about 10 to 15 years.

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

When should I have my first Cervical Screening Test?

Most women aged 25 and older will be due for their first Cervical Screening Test 2 years after their last Pap smear. If you have been advised to have earlier follow-up or to see a specialist, it is important to attend this follow-up when due.

It is now recommended that women should start screening at 25 years of age. If your result is ‘HPV negative’ (or ‘HPV not detected’) you will be due to have your next test in 5 years.

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

Yes. The human papillomavirus (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 regularly.

Why does screening start at 25 years of age?

The age to start screening has increased 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.

Where to get help

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

Acknowledgements

WA Cervical Cancer Prevention Program


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.