THe new cervical screening test and the old Pap Test

About the changes

Based on new evidence and better technology, the National Cervical Screening Program changed to improve early detection and save more lives. On 1 December 2017, the Pap test changed to a more accurate Cervical Screening Test.

Other changes include the age of screening increasing from 18 years to 25 years, and the time between tests changing from two to five years. People aged 70 to 74 will be invited to have an exit test.

There’s also a new National Cancer Screening Register which will send you reminders when your next test is due. You can update your details, nominate a healthcare provider, change the date of your next test, and change your name. The register collects your name information from Medicare, so if your name doesn’t match your Medicare name, you can change it by calling 1800 627 701. 

How does a Cervical Screening Test differ from a Pap test?

The new Cervical Screening Test detects the presence of an HPV infection, which can be the first step in developing cervical cancer. While the Pap test detects abnormal cell changes, the new test detects the presence of an HPV infection, which causes 99.7% of cervical cancers.

The procedure for collecting the sample for HPV testing is the same as having a Pap test. A healthcare professional will still take a small sample of cells from the cervix, using a speculum. The sample will then be sent to a pathology laboratory for examination.

If the test detects an HPV infection, your cell sample (the same one taken during your Cervical Screening Test), will undergo another test in the lab looking for abnormal cell changes.

Remember: the Cervical Screening Test is for people who do not have symptoms. If you experience any symptoms like pain or unusual bleeding, you should see your GP as soon as possible.

Self-collection - where you collect your own sample using a swab (so no speculum!)- is an option for some people. Read more about self-collection here.

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Is the new Cervical Screening Test actually better than the Pap test?

HPV causes about 99.7% of cervical cancers. The new test looks for the presence of the HPV virus, while the Pap test looked for pre-cancerous changes in cells (which can occur because of the virus).

The cell changes caused by HPV that can lead to cervical cancer often take many years to develop, so looking for the presence of the HPV virus detects potential problems much earlier.

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Why is cervical screening so important?

Cervical cancer is one of the most preventable cancers. Regular cervical screening tests can reduce your risk of being diagnosed with cervical cancer. Almost 80% of cervical cancers occur in people who have never been screened or who are not up-to-date with their cervical screening.

It often takes years – on average 10 years – for an HPV infection to develop into cervical cancer, so looking for the presence of the HPV virus detects potential problems much earlier.

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Why is the screening age changing to start at 25 years of age?

Cervical cancer in people younger than 25 is very rare. Research shows that despite screening people younger than 25 years old for over 20 years, there has been no change to the rates of cervical cancer in this age group.

While HPV infection is common in people in this age group, it usually clears up itself within 1-2 years. An HPV infection that doesn’t clear up on its own usually takes 10 or more years to develop into cervical cancer.

If you didn’t get the Gardasil vaccine, had sexual contact at an early age, or have an immunodeficiency (for example, HIV or an auto-immune disease) talk to your doctor – they may advise you to get screened before you turn 25.

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Why is the test every 5 years now?

HPV causes about 99.7% of cervical cancers. The new test looks for the presence of the HPV virus, while the Pap test looked for pre-cancerous changes in cells (which can occur because of the virus).

The cell changes caused by HPV that can lead to cervical cancer often take many years – on average 10 years – to develop, so looking for the presence of the HPV virus detects potential problems much earlier.

It’s important to remember that screening is for people who don’t have any symptoms! If you experience symptoms like pain, unusual or excessive bleeding, pain or bleeding during sex, unusual discharge, lower back pain or leg pain or swelling – see a doctor right away.

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What is self-collection?

Self-collection – when you collect your own sample using a swab (so no speculum!) – is only available under Medicare if you’re over 30 and have never had cervical screening, or you are overdue by 2 years or more (so it's been 4 or more years since your last Pap test).

If you're eligible for self-collection and it's the best option for you, your doctor or nurse will give you a small swab and and tell you how to collect a sample from your vagina / front hole.

It’s a less effective screening test and if your sample tests positive for HPV, you’ll need to come back in so a clinician can take a sample of cells from your cervix to check for any abnormal changes.

It’s definitely better to get the full test in one go, but if you have found Paps difficult or impossible in the past and you’re now over 30 and overdue by 2 or more years, this could be a really good option for you. Talk to your GP or healthcare provider about self-collection options.

Some labs are waiting for accreditation to process the self-collected test, so there may be delays in getting your results. Check with your healthcare provider to find out more information.

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What if my healthcare provider told me I don’t need one?

If you have a cervix, have ever been sexually active (with anyone), and are 25 years of age or older, you need cervical screening.

HPV causes 99.7% of cervical cancers. HPV can be transmitted through any kind of sexual contact, including vaginal/front hole sex, anal sex, oral sex, genital skin-to-skin contact, fingering, fisting or sharing sex toys. HPV is also incredibly common. Most people will have HPV at some point in their lives, so even if you’ve only had one sexual partner, you need cervical screening.

We have more information on our Do I Need a Cervical Screening Test? page.

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How common is cervical cancer?

In 2017, an estimated 912 new cases of cervical cancer were diagnosed in Australia. Globally, cervical cancer is the second most common cancer for people with a cervix, which is why many countries, including Australia, have implemented regular cervical screening programs.

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How can I prevent cervical cancer?

Almost 80% of cervical cancers occur in people who have never been screened or who are not up-to-date with their cervical screening, so the best way to prevent cervical cancer is to get routine Cervical Screening Tests.

Not smoking is another way to reduce the risk of cervical cancer. People with a cervix who smoke are more likely than non-smokers to get cervical cancer. Smoking exposes the body to many cancer-causing chemicals which are absorbed through the lungs and carried into the bloodstream. Smoking also makes the immune system less effective in fighting HPV infections and can damage the cells of the cervix.

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