Future changes to cervical screening

Based on new evidence and better technology, the National Cervical Screening Program will change from 1 May 2017 to improve early detection and save more lives.

Page last updated: 28 October 2016

The National Cervical Screening Program is changing. From 1 May 2017:

  • women will be invited when they are due to participate via the National Cancer Screening Register
  • the Pap smear will be replaced with the more accurate Cervical Screening Test
  • the time between tests will change from two to five years
  • the age at which screening starts will increase from 18 years to 25 years
  • women aged 70 to 74 years will be invited to have an exit test.

Women of any age who have symptoms such as unusual bleeding, discharge and pain should see their Health Care Professional immediately.

HPV vaccinated women still require cervical screening as the HPV vaccine does not protect against all the types of HPV that cause cervical cancer.

A 2015-16 Australian Government Budget commitment provides funding to implement these recommended changes to the National Cervical Screening Program and establish a National Cancer Screening Register to support the new program.

The new program will commence from 1 May 2017 when the new Cervical Screening Test will become available on the Medicare Benefits Schedule. Until this time, women aged between 18 and 69 years who have ever been sexually active, should continue to have Pap test when due.

Frequently asked questions

Based on new evidence and better technology, the National Cervical Screening Program will change from 1 May 2017 to improve early detection and save more lives.

It is very important that women continue to participate in the current two yearly Pap test program to ensure they are not at risk of developing cervical cancer.

Pap tests have already halved the incidence and mortality from cervical cancer since the introduction of the National Cervical Screening Program in 1991.

Women will be due for the first Cervical Screening Test two years after their last Pap test.

The new Cervical Screening Test detects human papillomavirus (HPV) infection, which is the first step in developing cervical cancer.

The procedure for collecting the sample for HPV testing is the same as the procedure for having a Pap smear. A Health Care Professional will still take a small sample of cells from the woman’s cervix. The sample will be sent to a pathology laboratory for examination.

While the current Pap test can detect abnormal cell changes, the new Cervical Screening Test will detect the HPV infection that can cause the abnormal cell changes, prior to the development of cancer.

Persistent HPV infections can cause abnormal cell changes that may lead to cervical cancer. However, this usually takes a long time, often more than 10 years.

The new Cervical Screening Test will be available on the Medicare Benefits Schedule from 1 May 2017. Until then, it is important to undertake two yearly Pap tests to prevent cervical cancer.

Women of any age who have symptoms (including pain or bleeding) should see their Health Care Professional immediately.

From 1 May 2017, women will be invited to screen from 25 years of age. This change is because evidence shows that:

  • cervical cancer in young women is rare (in both HPV vaccinated and unvaccinated women)
  • despite screening women younger than 25 years of age for over 20 years there has been no change to the rates of cervical cancer or rates of death from cervical cancer in this age group
  • investigating and treating common cervical abnormalities in young women that would usually resolve by themselves can increase the risk of pregnancy complications later in life
  • the HPV vaccination has already been shown to reduce cervical abnormalities among women younger than 25 years of age and, in contrast to screening, is ultimately expected to reduce cervical cancer in this age group.

The National Cervical Screening Program currently recommends that all women who have ever been sexually active should start having Pap smears between the ages of 18 and 20, or one or two years after first becoming sexually active, whichever is later.

Until 1 May 2017, women are advised to continue screening in accordance with this policy however, if women have any questions about cervical screening and their individual situation they are encouraged to discuss these with their Health Care Professional.

From 1 May 2017, women aged 25 years or over who have not yet started cervical screening will receive an invitation to have the new cervical screening test.

The National Cervical Screening Register will send an invitation to women to let them know they are due for their test and also remind women if they become overdue for their regular test.

Women already participating the program will be invited to screen within three months of the date when they would have been due for their two yearly Pap test.

Women between 70 and 74 years of age who have had a regular Cervical Screening Test will be recommended to have an exit HPV test before leaving the National Cervical Screening Program.

Women older than 69 years of age who have never been screened or not had regular screening tests should have Cervical Screening Test if they request screening.

No. There is no effective population based screening test for rare neuroendocrine cervical cancers. Given the current state of scientific evidence, neither the current Pap test nor the new Cervical Screening Test (primary HPV test) can effectively detect rare neuroendocrine cervical cancers.

The changes to the National Cervical Screening Program from 1 May 2017 are based on new evidence and better technology and will improve early detection and save more lives.

  • The human papillomavirus (HPV) is a common infection in females and males.
  • Most people will have HPV at some time in their lives and never know it.
  • There are more than 100 different types of HPV that can affect different parts of the body. HPV types 16 and 18 are most commonly associated with cervical cancer. Genital HPV is spread by genital skin to genital skin contact.
  • Most HPV infections clear up by themselves without causing any problems. Persistent genital HPV infections can cause cervical abnormalities, which, if they continue over a long period of time (more than 10 years), can lead to cervical cancer.
  • It is important to remember that most women who have HPV, clear the virus and do not go on to develop cervical abnormalities or cervical cancer.

Genital HPV is spread through genital skin to genital skin contact. Condoms are an important barrier to many sexually transmitted infections, but offer limited protection against HPV as they do not cover all of the genital skin.

Because the virus can be inactive in a person’s cells for months or years, for many people it is probably impossible to determine when and from whom HPV was contracted.

Persistent infection over many years with one or more cancer-causing types of HPV is the main cause of cervical cancer. In fact, 99.7 per cent of all cervical cancers are caused by HPV infection.

Yes. The HPV vaccine does not protect against all types of HPV infection that are known to cause cervical cancer.

No. Eligible girls (and boys) should still be immunised to reduce transmission of HPV and help to protect the whole community against cervical cancer, as well as other HPV-related cancers such as throat and anal cancers.


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