Summary

Cancer screening involves testing for signs of cancer or precancerous conditions in people without obvious symptoms. The National Cervical Screening Program (NCSP) is one of Australia’s 3 population-based cancer screening programs. It aims to reduce cervical cancer cases, illness and deaths by detecting precancerous abnormalities before any potential progression to cervical cancer.

The NCSP is a highly successful public health initiative in Australia, halving cervical cancer incidence and mortality since it was introduced in 1991. This has been achieved through organised, population-based cervical screening to detect precancerous changes, allowing treatment before any progression to cervical cancer, thereby preventing this disease.

A renewed NCSP was introduced on 1 December 2017 that included a change from
2-yearly Pap tests for the target age group 20–69 to 5-yearly Cervical Screening Tests (CST) for the target age group 25–74. A CST is a human papillomavirus (HPV) test, followed by a liquid based cytology (LBC) test if oncogenic (cancer-causing) HPV is found.

Four years after its commencement, this is the third report to present data for the renewed NCSP. This report presents data against 17 of the 20 performance indicators that will be used to monitor the NCSP going forward.

Data included in this report are for the calendar years 2018, 2019 and 2020.

Terminology

This report uses the terms ‘people’ and ‘participants’ when referring to data collected under the NCSP. These data are not restricted by sex or gender, with all participants in cervical screening included in these data. For NCSP data, ‘people’ is defined as any person with a cervix. This may include women, transgender men, intersex people, and non-binary people.

This report uses the term 'women' to mean ‘female' when referring to data collected outside the NCSP as these other data sources are based on sex assigned at birth. These include cancer incidence data, and cancer mortality data. However, it should be noted that some people may not identify with this term.

Impact of COVID-19 on cervical screening in Australia

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected many areas of people’s lives, including their access to and use of health services, such as cancer screening programs.

Many of the performance indicators in this report are reported for 2020, which coincided with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia. The transitional nature of the renewed NCSP makes it difficult to ascertain the short-term impacts of COVID-19 on cervical screening. Potential impacts have been detailed where appropriate in the text in this report, and detailed more thoroughly in earlier reports, Cancer screening and COVID-19 in Australia (AIHW 2020; AIHW 2021b), that examined the number of screening tests performed in Australia’s three national cancer screening programs from January to September 2020.

Future work will provide a better understanding of the potential long-term, indirect health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on cancer screening and outcomes.