Everything You Need To Know About Australia’s Self-Administered HPV Testing

Photo by Lexi Laphor
In a pivotal update to the National Cervical Screening Program, Australia is now the first country in the world to offer self-testing swabs to people with a cervix who are due for a cervical cancer screening.
As of 2017, the human papillomavirus (HPV) test replaced the pap smear — both of which involved a speculum being inserted into the vagina.  
Now, the option to self-collect a sample means Aussies can test for HPV before any cancerous cells develop in the cervix, without what can often be an invasive and uncomfortable experience when you visit your GP.
The government hopes the self-testing method will increase the rates of screening, particularly within gender diverse communities that face access barriers and amongst those from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds who have have faced cultural taboos or stigmas around traditional 'pap smears'.
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"Anyone who has ever had a traditional 'pap smear' knows how uncomfortable and off-putting they can be. Now, women can choose to do a test themselves to detect cervical cancer," Assistant Minister for Health and Aged Care Ged Kearney said in an official press statement.

"This do-it-yourself test is a game changer, breaking down access barriers for many people. It will mean that women who have experienced sexual violence do not have to have the invasive test, but can still be effectively screened for cervical cancer."

What's the difference between a HPV test and a pap smear?

HPV is a common infection with various strains that affects different parts of the body including the cervix. In rare cases where it doesn’t clear up, it can cause cells in the cervix to change, leading to cervical cancer.
In 2017, the HPV cervical screening test replaced the pap smear test. While the pap test (every two years) only looked for abnormal cells in the cervix, the HPV test (every five years) looked for HPV which causes almost all cervical cancers.

Who is eligible to self-test?

As of July 1, anyone between the ages of 25 and 74 with a cervix who has ever been sexually active will be able to take their own sample from their vagina. It's available anytime an HPV test is needed, including for follow-up HPV testing and cervical screening during pregnancy.

Where can I get it and how does it work?

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In order to access this self-testing option, you'll need to visit your GP, who will provide a screening kit that includes a swab and instructions on how to do the test.
You'll then be directed to a private space within the healthcare facility or surgery — usually a bathroom or behind a curtain where you'll be able to take your own sample from your vagina.
"You will be given a swab that you place into the vagina. You just turn it a number of times to collect the cells inside the vagina," health expert Liz Ham told the ABC. "After that, you take it out and give it back to your doctor."
If a concerning strain of HPV shows up on a self-test sample, a doctor or healthcare professional can then conduct a traditional cervical screening test and discuss management options.

How much does it cost?

The self-test option is free under Medicare, so as long as you're eligible for Medicare and your doctor or healthcare provider bulk bills for consultation, the whole thing will be free.

Why is it important to get tested?

According to the Cancer Institute NSW, it usually "takes between 10 and 15 years for a persistent HPV infection to cause cervical cancer."
That's why it's so important to get tested every five years so that if an infection is detected, it can be monitored and treated if necessary.
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