30 Sep 2015

New cervical smear test on the cards

1:01 pm on 30 September 2015

Three-yearly cervical smear tests will be dumped and replaced with different five-yearly ones under a new testing scheme proposed by the Ministry of Health.

The new test looks for the human papilloma virus (HPV), the major cause of cervical cancer, rather than abnormalities in cells.

AgResearch is planning to cut 33 scientist roles and 50 science technician roles.

Photo: 123RF

The ministry says the new test is capable of detecting more than 90 percent of the HPV virus.

With current testing, cells from the cervix are analysed for changes that could indicate an increased risk of developing cancer.

Gynaecologist Dynes McConnell, who carries out analysis of abnormal smear tests, said the present method often gives false results.

"It also requires highly-trained individuals to look down a microscope for those abnormal cells and that can be a cost to the screening programme that takes away our ability to deliver smears to as many people as we possible can."

Looking directly for the virus would save time and money, and would identify more women genuinely at risk of cervical cancer, he said.

"It means that we can begin to dispense with some parts of the programme that are expensive and complicated and not always productive and at the same time begin to develop a more focused test in the form of a virus test," he said.

New Zealand has about 160 cases of cervical cancer a year, and the use of the HPV test could reduce that further, said Jane O'Hallahan, clinical director of the ministry's cervical screening unit.

"We could reduce the incident by up to 16 percent."

Health Minister Jonathan Coleman said the new test was a better way to identify women at higher risk of developing cervical cancer than the current method.

Labour Party health spokesperson Annette King supports the change, saying New Zealand needs to keep up to date with the latest health tests.

Consultation for the new approach to screening closes on 23 October and if the changes are adopted the Ministry of Health will start implementing them in 2018.