Budget 2021: $53m for cervical cancer self-test, upgrade of breast screening

The soon-to-be-announced Budget will provide a new cervical cancer screening test, allowing women to test themselves, as well as an upgrade of the breast cancer screening system, the Government has announced. 

$53 million will be invested towards the development and implementation of a new self-swab test for human papillomavirus (HPV), the virus that is responsible for 99 percent of cervical cancers. 

It will also invest $55.6 million into a new breast screening system that will identify and enrol eligible women to reach 271,000 more people who aren't currently in the programme.

Health Minister Andrew Little said New Zealand's successful management of COVID-19 has allowed the Government to focus on health changes for all Kiwis.

"We are able to invest in and implement changes in health that will deliver for all New Zealanders thanks to our economy performing better than forecast because of the Government’s successful management of COVID-19," he said in a pre-Budget announcement on Sunday. 

"This is a recovery budget. The Budget will continue to focus on securing our recovery while making investments that improve the lives of New Zealanders."

Associate Health Minister Ayesha Verrall said the new cervical cancer test aims to address inequities in women's health. 

"Every year, about 160 women develop cervical cancer and about 50 die from it. This is a tragedy as almost all cases are preventable or can be treated if they’re found at an early stage.

"While our National Cervical Screening Programme has reduced incidence and death rates for cervical cancer by more than half since 1990, we know that only 61 percent of eligible wāhine Māori access it. There are many reasons for this including the time, cost and whakamā associated with taking the smear test."

She said the $53 million investment will make a "real difference" for wāhine Māori who may prefer to take the test themselves. 

"The new test, which will replace the current smear test for the 1.4 million eligible women aged 25-69 years old, is a simple and quick swab that women can choose to do themselves. This will help to reduce the barriers to getting screened." 

Dr Verrall said clinical modelling predicts the self-swab will prevent "about 400 additional cervical cancers over 17 years and will save around 138 additional lives". 

"Around a third of the cases prevented and lives saved will be wāhine Māori," she added. 

The announcement comes as calls for cervical self-screening ramped up following Labour MP Kiri Allen's diagnosis of stage 3 cervical cancer in April. 

Last week Allan revealed that as a wāhine Māori she has just a 13 percent chance of surviving cervical cancer compared to a 40 percent chance for the rest of the population. 

Labour MP Kiri Allan has been diagnosed with stage 3 cervical cancer.
Labour MP Kiri Allan has been diagnosed with stage 3 cervical cancer. Photo credit: Facebook - Kiri Allan

Allan has been using her diagnosis to raise awareness about the importance of regular pap smears and the inequality in New Zealand's health care which means Māori women are three times more likely to die from cervical cancer.

Speaking to The Hui on Monday, Allan said she found out about the low survival rate of cervical cancer for Māori women during her diagnosis.

"When I got told that I had cervical cancer, they said for somebody with stage 3C you have a 40 percent chance of survival. As a wāhine Māori, I have about a 13.3 percent chance of survival," she said.

"Do the maths on that. I don't know why that is, how that is, but it's wrong. 

"The disparity is too much, people are dying far too young. This is a korero that needs to happen again and again and again."

Dr Verrall said the vaginal swab, which can be taken by the woman herself, or by a clinician, and is then tested for HPV,  is commonplace in other countries. 

"HPV testing, which is in place in Australia, the United Kingdom, Ireland and several other European countries, is also shown to be more effective so women who test negative only need to be screened every five years, not every three years as is currently the case.

"The upcoming changes will be fully rolled out from 2023 and deliver on the Government’s priority to lay the foundations for a better future. However, 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.

The investment of $55.6 million for breast cancer will go towards a major upgrade in screening technology and an additional $10 million will be allocated to match population growth and catch up on breast screens missed due to COVID-19 lockdowns.

Each year in New Zealand, approximately 3200 people are diagnosed with breast cancer and around 600 die from it. 

The national breast screening programme, BreastScreen Aotearoa (BSA), provides free mammography screening every two years to women aged 45 to 69.

Dr Verrall said the current system relies on women signing themselves up for screening which can create a barrier to getting a mammogram done. 

"The existing system operates as an 'opt-in' model, where women choose to enrol for breast screening via their GP or by calling a 0800 number. 

"This model relies on women knowing they are eligible for free breast screening and making an appointment themselves."

New technology announced on Sunday aims to provide an extra push. 

"[it] will better equip the programme to reach the 271,000 women who are eligible to access breast screening but are not currently being screened, by being able to directly invite them and run targeted campaigns. When women are offered an appointment, they can choose to participate or ask to opt-out."

Dr Verrall said the Government is "committed" to improving health outcomes for "hard to reach communities". 

"With more Māori and Pacific women dying from breast cancer compared with non-Māori and non-Pacific women, the new system will allow BSA to identify priority group women who may not already be part of the programme."

The new system will be up and running in the next two years, the Government said.