Change to age women begin having cervical smear tests

Wednesday, September 14, 2016 - 13:32

The Ministry of Health has today announced that the age women begin having cervical smear tests will change from 20 to 25 in 2018.

“There is now a strong body of evidence that screening women between the ages of 20 and 24 causes more harm than good,” Clinical Director of the National Screening Unit, Dr Jane O’Hallahan says.

“The primary reason for this is the human papillomavirus (HPV) that causes more than 90 per cent of cervical cancers is common in younger age groups and typically clears up on its own.

“Harms of screening this age group includes over-diagnosis, increased stress and anxiety associated with additional tests and treatments and unnecessary colposcopy, which is associated with heightened risk of future pre-term births.”

International and New Zealand experience also shows that screening women aged 20 to 24 does not reduce cervical cancer mortality rates.

“Since the inception of the National Cervical Screening Programme in 1990, there has been no reduction in cervical cancer incidence rates or mortality for those aged 20-24. In contrast, there’s been a marked and gradual reduction in cervical cancer rates in older age groups,” Dr O’Hallahan says.

“The age change is in line with that of many other countries including Australia, England, Scotland, the Netherlands, France, Belgium, Ireland, Italy, and Norway. The World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer also recommends cervical screening begins at age 25.

“The HPV vaccination programme in schools offers to best protection to younger age groups from HPV infections and invasive cancer. There will be accelerated progress with the programme’s coverage rates with boys also being offered the vaccination from 2017.

“We recognise that there are rare cases of younger women developing cervical cancer, however the evidence shows this is usually aggressive forms of cancer which screening would not have protected them from.

“As always, if someone outside the age group for screening notices any symptoms, such as unusual bleeding, discharge or pain, they should seek prompt medical attention.

“New Zealand’s screening programme is recognised as one of the most successful in the world and has demonstrated its ability to continually evolve as new evidence emerges.”  

The age change coincides with the move to change the primary test for cervical cancer in 2018 from analysing cells to detect changes that could indicate an increased risk of developing cervical cancer, to screening for HPV every five years. Both proposals were the subject of a public consultation process in 2015.

Media contact: Rachael Bruce 021 705 469

Page last updated: 14 September 2016