Research to inform national cervical screening programme

Researchers from Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington have been awarded more than $1 million from the Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC) to develop the evidence-base for an effective national HPV screening programme for detecting changes that may lead to cervical cancer.

The project will take place in Te Tai Tokerau, Northland, and will be delivered by University researchers in collaboration with Mahitahi Hauora—Northland’s primary health entity.

Screening for human papillomaviruses (HPV) can effectively detect many of the high-risk strains of the virus associated with cervical cancer. Existing evidence shows a test that can be self-administered can help reduce the barriers that result in inequity for Māori women in the screening programme.

This new project from the University’s Centre for Women’s Health Research—Te Tatai Hauora o Hine in the Wellington Faculty of Health will gather the evidence required to inform the National Screening Unit as to the efficacy and quality of offering of the HPV self-testing as part of the national screening programme, and to inform how to implement a high quality, equitable, efficient and sustainable primary HPV screening programme.

If New Zealand adopts universal HPV self-testing, it will be the first programme in high-income countries to offer the self-test as the main screening test.

“Switching New Zealand’s cervical screening programme to HPV testing has the potential to reduce the incidence of cervical cancers by 15 percent annually compared with the current programme, which is why the New Zealand Cervical Screening Programme is planning on making this switch in the future,” says Professor Bev Lawton, Director of Te Tatai Hauora o Hine.

“We will work alongside district health boards, primary care and community groups, and the Ministry of Health to inform the national programme. We will answer the questions, would a HPV test women can do themselves screen as many women as the present system that involves a clinician exam with a speculum? And would such a self-test make screening more accessible to all women?”

Dr Mataroria Lyndon, Equity Lead at Mahitahi Hauora, sees this research as an exciting opportunity.

“HPV self-testing has the potential to make cervical screening more convenient, timely, and increase participation too, particularly for wāhine Māori. We hope this partnership will help to provide greater access to HPV screening to reduce the impact of cervical cancer in Te Taikorerau.”

Also announced by the Health Research Council today, Dr Terry Fleming and PhD student Russell Pine, also from the University’s Wellington Faculty of Health, have received $30,000 over six months to continue developing Sparky, a videogame designed to help adolescents with their mental health.

“Despite the variety of available treatments for psychological distress, many adolescents do not engage with treatment or frequently drop out of treatment if they do,” Dr Fleming says. “We need to provide alternative options for accessing mental health treatment and support, and research has shown videogames like Sparky may have promise in treating anxiety, depression, stress, and low mood.

“Over the past year, promising feedback from young people, teachers, and health professionals has suggested our current prototype game is promising and worthy of further development,” Russell says.

The Health Research Council funding will help the research team engage with professional game developers, with a goal of finishing developing the game by late 2020 or early 2021.

“Once development of the game is complete, we’ll be able to fully evaluate its therapeutic potential,” Russell says. “If the results are promising, Sparky could become another important tool for helping adolescents manage their mental health.”