National | Health

Cervical cancer screening to be fully funded for wāhine Māori

“I first heard about this test because I came to the BBM from the couch, and one of the nurses approached us wāhine to see if we would like to try this new testing out,” says Lori Henry (Ngāphui, Ngāti Hine). “I decided to take that on board.”

Lori had had a screening before and was due another one. “I don’t like going to the doctor to get it done,” she says. “But this one could be done by myself, in my own privacy, and it was very easy to do.”

The new screening process for cervical cancer screening will kick in on September 12 and it will make self-testing the main form of testing- a move health authorities are hoping will help in early detection of what remains one of New Zealand’s most common forms of cancer.

“Annually, we have about 180 cases of cervical cancer and 80 deaths and most of this is preventable,” says Dr Jane O’Hallahan, clinical director for screening at Te Whatu Ora’s national screening unit.

‘A much more effective test’

“We are rolling this out on the back of some really good research over the past 18 months that shows that the self-test is far more acceptable,” O’Hallahan says.

Te Tātai Hauora o Hine (National Centre for Women’s Health Research) director Dr Bev Lawton says the new screening process will be a game changer.

“A little belatedly, we are switching to have a Human papillomavirus (HPV) as our primary test,” she says. “Some people do not like doing screening with a speculum. We understand that, and that is why this new test is going to be so effective.”

The current screening process involves a cervical cytology (pap smear test) that looks for changes caused by the virus. The testing is done at a health provider by a doctor.

O’Hallahan says the new test will make things a lot simpler. “Women will be able to self-test by introducing a swab into the vagina. You don’t have to reach the cervix,” she says.

“It took me maybe less than five seconds to do it,” says Lori Henry. “I took it home and brought it back the next day and in a couple of days I had my results back.”

Fully funded

Te Whatu Ora has also announced a $7.3 million fund to make the test completely free for select groups, including wāhine Māori. “Incidence and mortality rates from cervical cancer are higher for Māori than for others,” O’Hallahan says.

The screening will also be fully funded for Pasifika, those eligible for the Community Services Card and those who have not had a screening in the last five years or who have never had a test. The free screening will be available from September 12 with the rollout of the new HPV test.

It’s a welcome piece of news, Dr Bev says. “The only reservation we have is it’s not guaranteed every year. We need a totally free screening process to prevent cervical cancer,” she says.

The self-test will be available at primary health providers, Family Planning and Support to Screening Services. Te Whatu Ora says work is underway to increase coverage.

The option of sending tests by post will also be looked at in the future, O’Hallahan says.