What happened to the Pap Smear?
There’s been a significant change to the way we screen for cervical cancer in Australia. It’s more accurate and we’ll need to do the test less often.
Since December 2017, the Pap Smear has been replaced with the Cervical Screening Test.
It is an exciting development for a few reasons and alongside the vaccine for HPV could set us on the path to eliminate cervical cancer in Australia.
What’s different about the test?
The actual experience of the test is the same (sorry everyone).
The main difference is in what happens after the sample is taken. While a Pap Smear looks for changes in the cells of the cervix, the new Cervical Screen tests for the Human Papillomavirus or HPV.
This is a really important difference because HPV is the leading cause of cervical cancers.
Because the Cervical Screening Test looks for the cause of cancer, it’s more accurate and means we can do something early.
When HPV is found further tests are done on the same sample to work out what needs to happen next.
How often do I need to get a Cervical Screening Test?
Provided your test comes back ‘normal’ you’ll only need to do the Cervical Screening Test every 5 years!
Who needs to have a Cervical Screening Test?
Anyone with a cervix who has ever been sexually active needs to be tested. Just to be clear, sexual activity is a broad thing!
It doesn’t matter who your sexual partners are or how you have sex, you still need to get tested. (It’s about skin on skin contact.)
The age range for testing has also changed. Now testing begins at age 25 and goes up to 69 years old.
When you’re between 70-74 years old if you deliver an HPV free result then you no longer need to test.
How does the HPV vaccine figure in this?
Some of us will have received the vaccine for HPV but we still need to be tested. The vaccine doesn’t cover us for all types of HPV and doesn’t protect us if we already had HPV.
Do I have to go to a doctor or health professional to have the cervical screen test done?
The short answer is yes, but there is now an option to ‘self-collect’ in some circumstances.
Self-collection means you are given a swab and container and swab your vagina yourself.
The self-collection method addresses the fact that about 80% of women who develop cervical cancer have never been tested or are not up to date with testing.
Not everyone is eligible for self-collection and you need to discuss it with your doctor.
If you’re ever having symptoms such as abnormal vaginal bleeding, discharge or pain, don’t wait for your next test date. See your doctor straight away.
For more information, the Cancer Council has an excellent Q and A about the Cervical Screening Test.
This article draws on information from:
M T Hall et al, ‘The projected timeframe until cervical cancer elimination in Australia: a modelling study’. (2018). The Lancet Public Health, 4(1), pp.e19-e27.
The Australian Government Department of Health, (2019). ‘The Pap Test has changed: more accurate. Less often.’