Cervical cancer screening rates among Indigenous women ‘show no improvement’

There has been no improvement in screening rates for Indigenous women in the 25-year history of the Australian National Cervical Cancer Screening Program (NCSP), a study shows.

Research also showed Indigenous women were twice as likely to develop cervical cancer and four times more likely to die from the cancer than other Australian women.

Indigenous women are also more likely to have advanced disease when diagnosed and have lower survival rates five years after diagnosis, the study published in the journal Cancer revealed.

Cervical cancer is largely preventable through screening with Pap tests, which are available to all Australian women aged 20 to 69 years through the NCSP.

The results from Queensland, which are the first to be analysed from the national study, showed that between 2007 and 2011 only 50 per cent of Indigenous women had a pap test, compared with 80 per cent of non-Indigenous women.

Lead author Lisa Whop, from the Menzies School of Health Research, presented her findings at the inaugural World Indigenous Cancer Conference in Brisbane.

“Two thirds of Indigenous women in Queensland do not have the recommended two yearly Pap test and there has been no improvement in closing the gap in screening participation over time,” she said.

“We know that cervical cancer is a largely preventable disease if women have regular pap tests.

“Our study results show that participation is significantly less for Indigenous women, so it’s quite worrying.”

Screening was particularly low for the 45 to 49 age group, the age range where cervical cancer is most likely to be diagnosed, said Professor Peter Baade, a co-investigator from the Cancer Council Queensland.

Associate Professor Gail Garvey, from the Menzies School of Health Research, said services needed to be more culturally appropriate and inclusive to tackle the issue.

“We have the evidence. Now we need to do something about it,” she said.

“We have to engage and involve Indigenous people or it won’t work.”

‘A lot of promise’ in new testing regime

Starting next year, a new testing regime will begin, where women will be screened every five years instead of every two.

“We know the HPV test we’re going to use is actually better at detecting cancer,” National HPV Vaccination Program Register director Julia Brotherton said.

“It’s going to be a better strategy. So I think there’s a lot of promise there.”

Ms Whop said: “Cervical cancer is a devastating disease for women, their families and communities, made more so by how preventable it is.

“The renewed NCSP … is an important opportunity for the program to engage more effectively with Indigenous women. HPV testing promises to be better than Pap tests at detecting and preventing pre-cancerous lesions but will only work if women participate in the program.”

Ms Brotherton also urged Indigenous parents to ensure their children received the HPV (human papilloma virus) vaccination, offered for free in high school.

“It’s one of the best things you can do as a parent is to stop them from being infected with these cancer causing viruses,” she said.

Results from other states are due to be released in the coming months.