12 Sep 2023

Labour promises free cervical screening, as new self-test rolls out

5:47 am on 12 September 2023
Labour MP Willow-Jean Prime in Select Committee

Labour women's health spokesperson Willow-Jean Prime (file image). Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

Labour is promising free cervical screening for ages 25 to 69.

The policy is expected to cost $20 million a year from current health spending baselines. It makes progress on the repeated recommendations of the Parliamentary Committee looking into the screening programme, which called for free cervical screening for all by 2024.

It also coincides with an HPV self-test option and a wider array of free testing being rolled out by the government from Tuesday.

About 180 people are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year, and about 60 die from it. In 2017 the rate was 6.1 cases per 100,000 women, but rates had decreased about 50 percent since screening was introduced in 1990.

Labour Women's Health spokesperson Willow-Jean Prime announced the new policy on Tuesday morning, saying the screening system had never been fully funded and often required co-payments, sometimes of up to $100.

"Making cervical cancer screening free for everyone eligible brings it into line with other forms of cancer screening, like breast cancer," she said.

Prime told Morning Report it was the the only cancer screening programme that was not fully funded.

"Cervical cancer is one of the most preventable cancers and regular screening saves lives, so it is critical cost isn't a barrier to accessing early detection.

"This month is Cervical Screening Awareness Month, and with free HPV vaccinations and increasing access to our new HPV self-test, ultimately we can achieve enough coverage to make cervical cancer a thing of the past."

Screening for women under the age of 25 has been found to be ineffective at preventing cervical cancer and could cause bodily harm, according to a 2020 report by the National Cervical Screening Programme. In 2019, the screening age was lifted from 20 to 25.

About 85 percent of people who develop cervical cancer in Aotearoa have either never been screened or have been screened infrequently.

Wider availability, new self-tests roll out

Labour's new policy was announced on the same day as the current government's rollout of the new HPV self-test.

The self-test is a vaginal swab, which can be done by a nurse or doctor, or by the patient. This detects human pappiloma virus (HPV), a common infection which usually clears up on its own.

"Many people have not felt comfortable with the traditional smear test as many of us will know it, and that the new self test is an easier test to do. It's one that you can do, yourself obviously, and so it's removing that barrier that we know has existed.

"The self test was trialled in some areas before being rolled out nationwide."

HPV vaccinations are available and effective at reducing the risk but they are not foolproof, and those who have been immunised should still get tested.

The self-test will become the main test for cervical screening, but if it detects changes caused by HPV the patient will be referred for a further smear test.

It will be available at primary health providers, Family Planning and Support to Screening Services.

Testing is also being made free for many groups at higher risk from 12 September, including: Māori and Pasifika of all ages, over-30s who had not had a screen in the past five years, those who need follow-up testing, and those with a Community Services Card.

University of Otago Women's Health Research Centre Te Tātai Hauora O Hine director Beverley Lawton said cost was an "immense barrier" and there needed to be free screening for all.

"Now we have a better test that will prevent more cancers, and we can do it ourselves, we can get on with the job, make it accessible, like it is in other countries like Australia and the UK."

As well as saving lives the $20m programme was cost-effective as preventing cervical cancer saved the government money, she told Morning Report.

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