Cancer Council study confirms starting cervical cancer screening at age 25 is safe

A study by Cancer Council NSW has confirmed that starting cervical cancer screening at age 25 is safe. The findings support the Australian government’s renewed cervical screening program (set to come into effect later in the year), which recommends that women should start screening for cervical cancer at age 25, not age 18-20.

Megan Smith, Program Manager, Cervix/HPV and Breast Group at Cancer Council NSW, will present the research behind this study to Hunter GP’s and Practice Nurses on Wednesday evening in Newcastle.

The study looked at the incidence of cervical cancer in Australia since the introduction of the current National Cervical Screening Program (NCSP) in 1991 – for the first time, the analysis didn’t just examine cervical cancer overall, but also women’s age and the histological subtype of cervical cancer they were diagnosed with.

The study found that squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) and overall cervical cancer rates have declined dramatically (by around 50 per cent) in women aged 25 years or older since the inception of the NCSP. However, neither has declined significantly in women aged 20-24 years, although this age group has been included in the NCSP since its inception.

Megan Smith,said the HPV vaccination, introduced in 2007, had already been shown to reduce cervical abnormalities among women younger than 25 years, and will continue to reduce their risk.

“Most cervical cancers are caused by HPV infections, and in the last ten years Australia’s HPV vaccination program has been very effective in reducing these infections in young women. When the screening program changes in May, women under 25 will have been offered HPV vaccination when they were aged under 15, and we know that the HPV vaccine is very effective when it is given at that age,” Ms Smith said.

Another important change to the NCSP is that women in the Hunter will receive explicit invitations to attend for screening, the first one close to their 25th birthday. 

“A switch from a reminder-based to an invitation-based program was a key recommendation, and modelling indicates this change will have an important impact on the effectiveness of screening in young women and the program overall,” continued Ms Smith.

“Therefore, we can confidently say that the starting age of 25 years is safe. Cervical cancer is very rare in women under 25, and cervical screening does not appear to have been effective in preventing it in this age group.  The best prevention for cervical cancer in women under 25 is HPV vaccination, and most women under 25 have been vaccinated.  In fact, so many young women have been vaccinated against HPV that it is harder for the virus to spread and HPV infection rates have even dropped in young women who aren’t vaccinated. However, it is very important that all women – vaccinated or not - do start screening when they turn 25 and receive their invitation.”