March 4th is International HPV Awareness Day.
If you’re aged 25-74 and have a cervix, you need a Cervical Screening Test every five years – it detects human papillomavirus (HPV) before it can develop into cancer. If you’ve already received the HPV vaccine, it’s still important to take part in regular cervical screening.
- Your first Cervical Screening Test is due two years after your last Pap test.
- If it’s been more than two years, talk to your doctor or nurse about getting screened as soon as possible.
- After your first Cervical Screening Test, you will only need screening every five years.
Busting the top three myths around HPV
In December 2017, Australia’s National Cervical Screening Program changed to improve early detection and save more lives – now the two-yearly Pap test has been changed to a five-yearly Cervical Screening Test.
The new Cervical Screening Test detects HPV, the key risk factor in the development of cervical cancer.
The improved test means that more women will be told they have HPV. There is a lot of misinformation and stigma surrounding HPV, which can cause feelings of uncertainty and anxiety; so we’ve asked Kate Broun, Screening, Early Detection and Immunisation Manager at Cancer Council Victoria to give us the facts.
Fact: The new test will show if you have a high-risk HPV type
The new test feels the same as the old Pap test and follows the same process of a doctor or nurse taking a sample of cells from your cervix. The difference is that instead of looking for cell changes in your cervix, the new Cervical Screening Test looks for HPV.
There are well over 100 types of HPV, but only about a dozen of them are known to cause cancer. The test looks for these types. It will also specifically identify if HPV types 16 or 18 are present – these are the two most high-risk types of HPV commonly associated with cervical cancer.
If HPV is found, additional tests will be done on the sample cells. Your doctor or nurse will let you know what will happen next – it could be a repeat test in 12 months, or a follow-up procedure called a colposcopy.
Remember that HPV infections usually clear on their own by the body’s immune system, and most abnormal cells are not cervical cancer and can usually be treated quickly and painlessly – so you may have nothing to worry about.
Fact: Most people have HPV at some point in their life
It is estimated that over 80% of people will be infected with HPV at some point in their life. HPV is a virus that is spread by genital skin-to-skin contact and is so common that it could be considered a regular part of being sexually active.
HPV can be inactive in a person’s cells for months or years; so for many, it is impossible to determine when and from whom HPV was contracted.
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. As HPV lives on the skin, it is not only spread through penetrative sex.
Fact: HPV has no symptoms
Many people will have HPV at some point in their lives and never know, as there are usually no symptoms. Most HPV infections are cleared by the body’s immune system, without causing any problems. However, persistent infection with certain types of HPV can cause abnormal cell changes which, if left untreated, can lead to cervical cancer.
For more information, check out cervicalscreening.org.au.