Govt's commitment to providing self-test for HPV 'great news', but solution needed to bridge two-year delay - expert

The Government's commitment to providing a new self-test for human papillomavirus (HPV) is "great news", says a women's health expert - but something must be implemented in the interim while the swab is developed.

On Sunday, the Government announced $53 million will be put towards the development and implementation of a new self-swab test for HPV, the virus responsible for 99 percent of cervical cancers, in Budget 2021.

Associate Health Minister, Dr Ayesha Verrall, said the new swab will replace the current smear test for 1.4 million eligible women aged between 25 and 69. 

"It is a simple and quick swab that women can choose to do themselves. This will help to reduce the barriers to getting screened," she said.

Clinical modelling predicts the self-swab will prevent around 400 additional cervical cancers over 17 years, and will save around 138 additional lives.

The upcoming changes will be rolled out from 2023 - but women's health expert Professor Bev Lawton from Victoria University says a solution must be implemented in the interim.

"This is really good news. We've got to wait two years, which is unfortunate. I think in the meantime, we need to have some form of interim solution for those women who are under-screened - or never screened. And everyone has to keep getting their smears while we wait for the programme. Two years is a long time," she said.

Lawton added that health officials need to bring possible solutions to the table to bridge the two-year delay.

"We need to sit down and get one. We haven't got one at the moment, but we need one."

In her statement on Sunday, Dr Verrall urged women to continue with their smears over the next two years to ensure any abnormalities are detected. 

"It is really important that women who are due for screening continue to follow the existing process rather than waiting for the new test," Dr Verrall said.

Prof Lawton reiterated that cervical cancer is a preventable disease if women keep up with their cervical screening, allowing health professionals to detect - and remove - any abnormal tissue or cells in the cervix before cancer can develop.

"We think, at this stage, we're going to be one of the first in the world to have a programme that starts with HPV self-testing, and that's pretty special. Women can do their own set at the clinic or in their home - it's a good thing - [but] We need an interim solution," Lawton said.

She believes there's a good chance New Zealand will be able to meet the World Health Organization's goal of eliminating cervical cancer through routine screening, treatment and vaccination, which would mean only four out of 100,000 women would develop the cancer.  

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