New Zealand is aligning itself with international best practice and raising the age that women start cervical screening, from 20 to 25 years.
The change to the National Cervical Screening Programme will come into effect nationally from November 2019.
National Screening Unit Clinical Director Dr Jane O’Hallahan says clinical evidence shows that screening women under the age of 25 has limited benefits, whilst immunisation against human papillomavirus (HPV) provides far greater protection against cervical cancer.
“Cervical cancers in women under 25 years are rare and may not be prevented by screening. Since the National Cervical Screening Programme started in the 1990’s there has been no reduction in the rate of cervical cancer in 20 to 24 year olds, as a result of screening, despite a significant reduction in cancer rates for older women.
Screening women aged 20 to 24 years can result in investigating and treating abnormalities that often resolve on their own, without intervention, exposing young women to potentially unnecessary treatment.
Dr O’Hallahan says that women aged 20 to 24 are increasingly immunised against nine of the most common strains of human papillomavirus (HPV), the virus that causes cervical cancer. “HPV immunisation offers greater protection from cervical cancer in women under 25 and it is funded for NZ residents up to 26 years of age. Women who have been immunised still need to have regular cervical screening tests from 25 because the vaccine does not protect against all types of HPV”.
The programme change is being implemented across New Zealand from November 2019. From this date women new to screening will be invited to commence screening as they approach their 25th birthday.
“It is important that women commence screening around the time they turn 25 as cancer risk starts to increase from this age. Women under 25 who have already started cervical screening will continue to be recalled for screening,” explains Dr O’Hallahan.
Cervical screening from age 25 or older is recommended by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer. Other countries that have adopted the age change include Australia, England, Scotland, France, Belgium, Ireland, Italy and Norway. Many other European countries, such as the Netherlands and Finland, start screening at age 30 years.
Women of any age who have symptoms such as abnormal vaginal bleeding, persistent discharge or pelvic pain, should see their health care provider immediately.
Find out more about the cervical screening age change.