The latest on Pap smears

The American Cancer Society has issued new guidelines on Pap smear screening. In South Africa, however, there is no national screening programmes...

More women in South Africa die of cervical cancer than of breast cancer – a unique statistic. Despite this, only in five to 10 years will our country have a national screening programme, which will implement guidelines on the frequency with which Pap smears should be administered.

A Pap smear is a vaginal screening test that helps detect changes in the cervix that could signal cancer or precancer. An abnormal Pap smear result may reflect local inflammation or abnormal cells caused by a vaginal or viral infection.

However, sometimes these abnormal cells can signal the beginning of cervical cancer. If you have abnormal cells, your doctor may repeat the Pap smear or schedule a colposcopy – a test to look at the cervix under magnification.

In the First World a woman is encouraged to have her first Pap smear when she becomes sexually active and then one year later. If the smears are normal she will be advised to have her next screening three years later and then at 10-year intervals.

Recently the American Cancer Society changed the guidelines and women over 70 years old, with a history of normal Pap tests, as well as women who have undergone a hysterectomy for non-cancerous reasons, needn't be tested again.

In South Africa sexually active women are advised to undergo a Pap smear at least every two years. However, money and logistics often prevent access to Pap smear tests and 70 per cent of women in our country have never had one, according to Dr Bruce Howard, gynaecologist at Groote Schuur Hospital. Dr Howard is assisting Professor Lyn Danny in implementing the country's first screening programme. The programme will set the standards for all women to be tested at 30, 40 and 50.

Until we have better programmes in place to protect all South Africans, each woman will have to take her cervical health very seriously, warns Howard. Regular Pap smears are crucial as are requests for examinations at the first sign of abnormal vaginal bleeding or abnormal discharge. Those particularly at risk of contracting cervical cancer include smokers, HIV-positive women and those with a history of human papilloma virus (HPV).

A new Product on the market:

A product called Sen-c-Test that can detect certain strains of high-risk human papilloma virus (HPV), which is associated with the development of cervical cancer, is available at pharmacies countrywide.

This test may detect the cervical cancer sooner than might be detected by a Pap smear. However, the Sen-c-Test is not a replacement for the Pap smear, but can be used as an additional health check.

You 'collect' your own sample by inserting a tampon for three to eight hours. The tampon is then placed in the sample tube and returned to the pharmacy, which will send it to a laboratory to test for HPV. You can contact Sen-c-Test's hotline on ð0860 102 935 or visit www.senctest.com

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