Since the National Cervical Screening program started in 1991, the number of cervical cancers and deaths from cervical cancer have halved. Pretty impressive stuff! And, with a new human papillomavirus (HPV) Cervical Screening Test, introduced in December last year, promising more effective results than the traditional pap smear, it’s easier than ever before to protect yourself against cervical cancer.
Yet it’s still something that causes anxiety and confusion among women. With research showing that over 40% of eligible women fail to attend their cervical screening when invited, it seems we’re not as clued up as we should be.
We’re here to demystify the process and tell everything you need to know about the new Cervical Screening Test, colposcopy’s and HPV.
What’s the deal with the new HPV Cervical Screening Test?
The new Cervical Screen Test procedure feels exactly the same as a pap smear; both involve a doctor or nurse taking a sample of cells from your cervix. So if you’ve had a pap smear before, you’re unlikely to notice any difference.
However, whilst a pap smear tests for abnormal cells, this new test is for HPV. Abnormal cells can develop as a result of having HPV so this allows for earlier intervention than a pap smear. HPV is common among sexually active people and for most the infection will clear on its own. However, when the infection doesn’t clear it can cause changes in the cells in the cervix which, eventually, can lead to cervical cancer if they aren’t treated.
The major difference between these two tests is that the Cervical Screening Test is more effective and provides better long-term protection than the traditional pap smear. Plus, they will only be required every five years for sexually active women aged 25 – 74. This is due to the fact that less than 1% of cervical cancer is not caused by HPV so by testing for HPV, the test can identify women who are at a higher risk of developing cervical cancer.
What is HPV?
HPV is a very common sexually transmitted infection. It can be passed on even if a condom is used and transmits through skin-to-skin contact so areas not covered by the condom can still be infected. Whilst it sounds scary, it usually shows no symptoms and goes away by itself.
There are two categories of HPV that can affect the cervix – ‘low-risk’ and ‘high-risk’. ‘Low-risk’ HPV generally has no symptoms and is not known to cause cancer however some low risk types of HPV can cause genital warts. ‘High-risk’ HPV these are the types known to cause cervical cancer. The two highest risk HPV types- HPV16 and HPV18 cause 70% of all cervical cancers so it’s important to get tested even if you’re not displaying any symptoms.
There is no treatment for HPV as your body’s immune system should clear the virus within one to two years. However, if the virus takes longer to clear, persistent HPV infection with high risk HPV can cause abnormal cells to develop on the cervix that may develop into cervical cancer if left untreated.
I had the HPV vaccination, do I still need to be screened?
Even if you’ve had the HPV vaccination, you still need to have the Cervical Screen Test every five years. Whilst the HPV vaccine protects against the majority of high-risk types of HPV, it doesn’t make you completely immune.
It’s not all doom and gloom – screenings take just a few minutes and are relatively painless. You may experience some discomfort or feel a bit awkward however it’s a small price to pay for peace of mind.
When should I go for this screening?
The new screening requires women to start attending at the age of 25. The reason for the change in starting age is that cervical cancer is very rare in women under 25. Whilst HPV is common in this age group, it usually clears up by itself. Abnormal cells are also common for this age group and would usually have been treated if detected. However research has shown that these cells usually are unlikely to develop into cervical cancer and will clear up on their own.
If you have already begun having pap tests, your cervical screening will be due 2 years after your last smear. If there are no issues at your screening, your next test will be in 5 years.
A Cervical Screening Test is a test for when you don’t have symptoms. If you notice any pain or abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge, at any time do not hesitate to consult your doctor.
I’ve been putting off attending my screening – is it really important to go?
Cervical screenings are a little uncomfortable, but give you a lot of peace of mind. HPV often displays no symptoms but causes over 99% of cervical cancers. By attending your screening, you can find out if you are at risk of eventually developing cervical cancer, so you can be monitored and treated accordingly.
In short, it’s a few minutes of your time, once every 5 years, that could save your life. If you’re feeling particularly uncomfortable, talk to your doctor about your concerns. If you are 30 or over, are 2 or more years overdue for your test or have never had a screening, you might be eligible for self-collection. This is where you take your own sample rather than having a health professional conduct the procedure. However, keep in mind that these samples may not be as accurate as ones taken by a doctor.
How much will my screening this cost?
Medicare covers most of the cost of a Cervical Screening Test so if your doctor offers ‘bulk billing’ your test should be free of charge.
I’ve tested positive for HPV – what now?
The most important thing to remember is that most women who have HPV will not develop Cervical Cancer. The Cervical Screening Test prevents cervical cancer by finding HPV so that you doctor can recommend the right treatment for you. To find out more about what your screening results mean take a look at our guide.