Cervical screening test numbers on the rise

3 minute read

Latest data shows solid cancer screening program numbers, although when it comes to bowel and breast cancer screening, the Northern Territory is lagging behind.

The latest AIHW data about cancer screening programs in Australia show a significant rise in the number of cervical screening tests, while breast and bowel screening numbers have fallen slightly.

In its latest cancer screening update, the AIHW said 268,000 cervical screening tests were performed for participants aged 25 to 74 in the March quarter of this year; a large increase on previous periods.

The rise seems largely due to cyclical effects of the screening program, though the popularity of sample self-collection may have driven some of the increase.

“The March quarter 2023 experienced a peak in the number of HPV tests conducted (268,000) compared to the March quarters of the preceding three years (127,000 in March quarter 2022, 139,000 in March quarter 2021 and 238,000 in March quarter 2020),” said the AIHW.

“The increase in number of HPV tests in early 2023 in comparison to the three previous years is expected as many participants are returning for their first 5-year rescreen within the renewed program.

“Overall, the annual number of screening tests has decreased from over 1.5 million in 2018 and 2019 to 700,000 in 2020, 500,000 in 2021 and 481,000 in 2022. This was due to the program changeover from two-yearly Pap tests to five-yearly cervical screening tests in December 2017 and was expected to occur irrespective of the covid pandemic and subsequent restrictions.

“The number of screening tests in 2018 and 2019 fluctuated quarterly between 350,000 and 430,000. Most people who had screened under the previous program were due for their first primary human papillomavirus (HPV) test in 2018 and 2019, two years after their last Pap smear.

“The number of Cervical Screening Tests performed in 2020, 2021 and 2022 was expected to be lower than in 2018 and 2019 and fluctuated quarterly between 102,000 and 238,000 screening tests.

“Screening tests in 2020, 2021 and 2022 were mainly comprised of those in people overdue for their first HPV test, as well as people who were newly eligible for cervical screening, mostly due to turning 25.”

The latest data on Australians’ participation in bowel cancer screening suggests rates have dropped from the peak recorded in 2019-2020, although the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare says the reason is “unclear”.

The AIHW said 846,000 invitations to participate in the bowel cancer screening program were sent to eligible people aged 50-74 in March 2023, with 363,000 completed screening kits returned for analysis. Women returned 54% of completed kits.

“Between 2014-2015 and 2020-2021 the national participation rate has increased from 38.9% of invited people aged 50-74 in 2014-2015 to 43.8% in 2019-2020,” the AIHW report said.

“The participation rate has dropped from 43.8% in 2019-2020 to 40.9% in 2020-2021. It is still unclear why this drop has occurred.”

Gippsland PHN recorded the highest rate of participation in bowel cancer screening in 2020-21 with 47.3%, well above the national average. Northern Territory PHN recorded the lowest participation rate with 25.3%.

BreastScreen Australia reported that 50% of women aged 50-74 participated in their screening program in 2021-2022.

“The number of women aged 50-74 who participated in BreastScreen Australia rose from about 1.7 million in 2014-2015 to almost 1.9 million in 2018-2019. This rise was expected and is explained by the full implementation of the changes in the target age group from 50-69 to 50-74 that occurred in 2017,” said the AIHW.

“In 2019-2020 the number of participating women fell slightly to almost 1.8 million and continued to fall in 2020-2021 to about 1.7 million before rising again to over 1.8 million in 2021–2022.

“The national age-standardised participation rate among women aged 50-74 remained around 54% between 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 and fell by 13% to 47% (or a 7 percentage points drop) in 2020–2021 before rising by 6% (or by 3 percentage points) in 2021-2022.”

Northern Queensland PHN recorded the highest breast screening participation rate in the country with 58.9%, while, again, the Northern Territory PHN recorded the lowest, at 36.4%.

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