Pre-Budget announcement: Up to $53m invested in self-testing option for cervical cancer screening

Source: 1News

The Government will be investing up to $53 million to design and implement a new test to detect cervical cancers, in the hopes of reducing the barriers women face to getting screened. 

The investment was revealed by Health Minister Andrew Little and Associate Minister of Health Ayesha Verrall in a pre-Budget announcement this morning.

The new test is expected to replace the current smear test that 1.4 million eligible women between the ages of 25 to 69 use.  

“The persistent inequalities around cervical cancer has been one of the long-standing issues in women’s health,” Verrall said. 

“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."

Māori have the lowest immunisation rate against HPV, a virus that is linked to abnormal cell activity in the cervix, which can increase someone’s risk in developing cervical cancer. Wāhine Māori between the ages of 25 and 44 are also more likely to die from cervical cancer than Pākehā.

She said that was why investment into the design and implementation of a new test for HPV, which causes most cervical cancers, will make a “real difference” because women can have an option to self-test.

"There are many reasons for this including the time, cost and whakamā associated with taking the smear test.

“The new test … is a simple and quick swab that women can choose to do themselves. This will help to reduce the barriers to getting screened,” Verrall said. 

She said clinical modelling predicts the move would help to prevent 400 additional cervical cancers over 17 years and save about 138 additional lives. About a third of these will be wāhine Māori. 

There will also be further investment on a new IT system. 

Verrall said the changes are expected to be rolled out from 2023, because "significant changes" were required to make sure the transition was done in a safe way. 

“However, it is really important that women who are due for screening continue to follow existing processes rather than waiting for the new test,” she added. 

The review was expected to be discussed with National’s MPs this morning at caucus, but party president Peter Goodfellow was not committing to releasing it to MPs.

National Leader Judith Collins said she welcomed the announcement, but said she wished it had rolled out faster.

She added the announcement was very similar to proposals National had put forward during last year's election.

For many women she knew, Collins said the currect cervical testing system could be "very invasive".

She added while the cost of screening were high, it was cheaper for women and for taxpayers to detect any cancer early. 

Breast cancer screening 

Budget 2021 will also invest up to $55.6 million in a “major upgrade” to the IT technologies supporting breast screening.

Another $10 million has been earmarked to match population growth and catch up on breast screens missed because of the Covid-19 lockdowns. 

“The new technology 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,” Verrall said. 

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

Each year in New Zealand, about 3200 people are diagnosed with breast cancer and there are around 600 deaths from breast cancer. 

Currently, people can choose to opt in to the national breast screening programme BreastScreen Aotearoa, which provides free mammography screening every two years to those aged 45 to 69.

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

"The current ageing IT infrastructure puts the programme at risk. It lacks the flexibility to be easily upgraded to meet the needs of the community, and is no longer supported well by vendors."