Fears more women could have cervical cancer after screening programmes halted during COVID-19 lockdowns

There are fears more women could be diagnosed with cervical cancer after screening programmes were halted during last year's lockdowns.

The Ministry of Health has been scrambling to catch up on the backlog of women needing smears.

Kokiri Marae CEO Teresea Olsen was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2019 and struggled to tell her whanau.

"I said 'no you can't cry, that's believing I'm not going to get better so you can't cry'," she says.

Before lockdown Olsen had a hysterectomy operation - and was told there'd be another appointment later in 2020.

Then COVID-19 struck and she's heard nothing since, despite trying to contact the hospital.

"I have not got the all-clear because I haven't had that final follow up," she says. "If this has happened to me it's happened to lots of other women."

It's something Mana Wahine manager Tira Albert is also worried about - she's on a mission to get Maori women in for their smear.

"In the greater Wellington region - hundreds if not thousands of women we need to contact to get them in to have their screening."

But that's been tough.

"They're struggling to put a roof over their head, food on the table. Not to mention our wahine that are in domestic violence situations," Albert says.

Figures show a 32 percent drop in women being tested between January and May in 2020 compared to the year before.

That's about 50,000 women. And despite frantic efforts to catch up the Ministry of Health estimates it's still 10 percent behind.

It's worried there'll be an increase of cervical cancer.

"That is the risk - that we'll see cases occurring in women who have been unable to access a cervical smear," says Dr Jane O'Hallahan, clinical director of the national screening unit.

"I'm concerned unnecessary cases of cervical cancer will emerge."

On average about 50 women die each year in New Zealand from cervical cancer.

One of those was Talei Morrison who died at just 42 after starting the Smear your Mea campaign - backed by well-known faces Temuera Morrison and Stan Walker.

Her brother is carrying on her legacy.

"She was diagnosed at stage 4, it was too late. It's about using that experience and that harsh lesson so it inspires other women into action," Eruera Keepa says.

An action that can save lives.