Women and people of colour in Australia face a new epidemic of cervical carcinoma, and a new government proposal to introduce an “all-women” strategy to combat the disease has left many with doubts about its impact on the wider community.
Key points:The government says the all-women plan will “provide a pathway for women to become cancer-free”It’s been called the “most comprehensive package of cervical screening and treatment available to date”The proposal is to require women to have a Pap smear before a Pap test is performedMen who do not have Pap smears or Pap tests are eligible for other optionsThe plan is to make it easier for women who are currently being treated with other forms of cervical protection to be vaccinated against cervical cancerThe National Cancer Council says the plan is aimed at ensuring cervical screening for women is “cost effective and affordable”.
But the idea has been met with criticism by health groups, who say it will mean women are now more likely to get cervical cancer in the future.
In its consultation on the proposed all-woman strategy, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) said the new plan would help ensure women in Australia have access to “an effective and safe and affordable cervical cancer screening and prevention programme”.
“The proposed all women screening and screening plan will provide a pathway to achieve that, and to reduce the incidence of cervical cancers,” the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) said in its submission to the federal government.
“The plan will also provide a path for women with cervical cancer to become cervical cancer free by providing additional cervical cancer-specific immunotherapy options.”
The consultation process for the plan started in December with public submissions from groups, including the Australian Women’s Health Forum (AWHGF), the Australian Breast Cancer Foundation (ABCCF) and the Australian Cancer Society.
It then received submissions from doctors, health professionals, nurses and women and men from across the country.
The NCI said the plan would not impact on cervical cancer screenings or treatment, but that “it will support women to make informed decisions about their health and wellness”.
The National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), which administers the national cervical cancer strategy, said the all women plan would be an important step towards women’s cancer survival.
“Cervical cancer is a disease of the future and the world will never be the same,” it said in a statement.
“This will help achieve the vision of the National National Health and Medical Research Council to prevent and cure cervical cancer by 2025.”
“The NICE team has been working closely with the Department of Health to ensure the proposal reflects the national vision and that the plan delivers on its promises to protect women from cervical cancer.”
Dr Susan Soper, president of the ABCCF, said it was a good start but she was disappointed it did not provide the same “tangible and measurable benefits” to women of colour.
“It seems like a bit of a small thing to say, but to say that it’s not an immediate way to save women’s lives but it’s a really important way to ensure women have access is just not good enough,” she said.
Dr Soper said the national plan for cervical cancer should be seen as a “national strategy” and not just a “one size fits all” policy.
“There are other things that we need to be doing for cervical health and cervical cancer prevention that aren’t a national policy,” she told AM.
“We have to get better at working with other health systems and we have to understand the importance of getting women’s cancers under control.”
The National Health Council said the idea of “all women” screening was “important to ensuring that women who have already had cervical screening are not overlooked and that cervical cancer is not passed on to women in future generations”.
“We recognise that this plan is a significant initiative, but we are not proposing a universal screening regime,” it wrote.
“Instead, we are proposing a pathway by which women who currently have cervical screening may also become cervical screening-free and thus avoid the cervical cancer risk that their health could have already experienced.”
Dr Sperling said she hoped the plan was “the start of a much larger effort to address cervical cancer, but there’s still a lot more to do”.