New HPV self-test to make cervical screening easier

From Tuesday the cervical smear test will be replaced by a simpler, less invasive HPV swab, with the option to self-test.

The changes mean most women will now only need to screen once every five years, instead of three. It also means a greater number of women will have access to the test for free.

Kerri Murray knows first-hand the importance of regular cervical screening.

"I honestly think I probably wouldn't have been here today," she told Newshub.

The mum-of-two has undergone three procedures to remove pre-cancerous cells from her cervix since the age of 25.

"You think of your family obviously, you hear the word carcinoma, but I was really lucky I was able to catch it in time," she said.

Without a smear test, Murray wouldn't have known she needed the life-saving treatment. Over 90 percent of cervical cancers stem from human papillomavirus - better known as HPV - which affects four in five people at some point in their lives.

"I've had also a couple of friends who have died from that, so it has been a really personal journey for me," Murray added.

With the rollout of the more effective and accessible HPV-specific at-home test, it's hoped others won't have to endure the same journey.

"It's more palatable to women. It's less invasive, they have more control, and sensitivity for this particular test is more than 90 percent, compared to the cytology which is about 56 to 67 percent," said gynaecology oncologist Dr Ai Ling Tan.

The self-swab method has already proven successful in Australia: while there have been delays in rolling it out in Aotearoa, an additional $7.3 million has been earmarked to improve uptake.

For the first time, screening will be free for high-risk groups, including those who have never been screened or are under-screened, anyone requiring a follow-up, Māori and Pacific peoples, and community service card holders.

But there are calls for it to be free for everyone.

"It's certainly something we're looking at going forward and it's certainly a recommendation of various parliamentary reviews," said Dr Nick Chamberlain, national director of the National Public Health Service.

He said targeted funding is a step in the right direction, with screening rates dropping substantially during the pandemic.

"We're still some way away from achieving the numbers we'd like to achieve but currently our screening rates overall are at 68 percent with a target of 80 percent."

Murray said testing should be a no-brainer.

"I wanna be there for my children, my husband, my grandkids," she said.

These changes to the screening model will ensure more women can be.