Screening and vaccination for cervical cancer

Screening is the process of looking for cancer or precancerous changes in people who don’t have any symptoms.

For several decades, the Pap test (also called a Pap smear) has been used as a screening test for cervical cancer. While this has helped decrease cervical cancer significantly, scientific evidence has found that screening women for HPV – the virus that causes cervical cancer – is a more effective way of preventing cervical cancer.


New Cervical Screening Program

In December 2017, a Cervical Screening Test replaced the Pap test as part of the National Cervical Screening Program. The Cervical Screening Test detects cancer-causing HPV types in a sample of cells taken from the cervix.

During both the old Pap test and the new Cervical Screening Test, the doctor gently inserts an instrument called a speculum into the vagina to get a clear view of the cervix.

Once the speculum is in place, a brush is inserted through it to take a sample of cells from the cervix. This may feel a bit strange or uncomfortable but shouldn’t be painful, and it takes less than a minute or two.

The cells from the cervix will be placed in a tube that contains liquid before the doctor or nurse sends them to a laboratory for a closer look. The cells are checked for HPV which, if left untreated, can lead to abnormal cells, and, in rare cases, to cervical cancer.

For more information about screening tests, call Cancer Council 13 11 20 Information and Support, or visit

The screening program recommends women aged 25–74 be tested for HPV every five years.

National HPV Vaccination Program

The HPV vaccine used in Australia up to 2017 provided protection against two strains of HPV, 16 and 18, that are known to cause 70–80% of cervical cancers. From 2018, a new HPV vaccine will be introduced into the school-based program – it will protect against around 90% of cervical cancers. Both vaccines also offer some protection against other less common cancers associated with HPV, including vaginal, vulvar, oropharyngeal and anal cancers.

As part of the National HPV Vaccination Program, the vaccine is free for girls and boys aged 12–13 (The vaccine helps to protect males against penile, oropharyngeal and anal cancers). People who are already sexually active may still benefit from the HPV vaccine. Ask your GP for information.

The HPV vaccine cannot be given to treat precancerous changes or cervical cancer.

If you’ve been vaccinated, you will still need regular screening tests as the HPV vaccine does not provide protection against all types of HPV.

Find more information about the National HPV Vaccination Program.

This information was last reviewed in December 2017
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