Te Ara Waiora: HPV self-test trial in Northland underway

An innovative cervical self-screening test has been launched at Northland general practices as part of a study by Te Tātai Hauora o Hine—National Centre for Women’s Health Research Aotearoa (NCWHRA) in partnership with Mahitahi Hauora.

Professor Beverley Lawton holds a HPV self-testing swab
Professor Beverley Lawton holds a HPV self-testing swab

The HPV self-test enables women to screen themselves through their general practice or at home. The two-year research study aims to explore the challenges associated with implementing this test, as well as its ability to increase uptake of cervical screening in Northland and improve screening services, particularly for Māori and rural populations.

Northland primary health entity, Mahitahi Hauora, is working with Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington’s Te Tātai Hauora o Hine—National Centre for Women’s Health Research Aotearoa to carry out the study, which is funded by Mahitahi Hauora and the Health Research Council of New Zealand.

The self-test detects high-risk Human Papillomavirus (HPV), which is the cause of most cervical cancer. Screening for HPV can detect pre-cancerous changes before cervical cancer develops.

Te Tātai Hauora o Hine—National Centre for Women’s Health Research Aotearoa founder and director Professor Beverley Lawton said it was a privilege to be guided by the Te Ara Waiora steering group, Mahitahi Hauora, and the general practices involved as they worked together on this research to implement the improved cervical cancer screening programme.

Mahitahi Hauora Clinical Director Dr Grahame Jelley said the study looks at how many women have cervical screening when offered self-screening compared with women offered the usual cervical smear, including those who have never screened or are underscreened. The research will also gather feedback from wāhine and healthcare providers about their experiences with the new test.

“We already know HPV screening gives more reliable results than a traditional cervical smear. What we’re doing in this study is looking at patient uptake of HPV self-screening and how it can best be implemented in New Zealand general practice.”

Study findings will be used to inform the National Screening Unit as it works towards its anticipated roll out of HPV testing as a replacement screen for traditional cervical smear in 2023.

Dr Jelley said self-testing could increase uptake of cervical screening among women whose screening is overdue or who have never had screening particularly Māori and Pacific women and those in rural areas, who have lower screening rates.

“We know significant numbers of wāhine Māori are reluctant to have a cervical smear because it’s a physical examination, and whakama has always been one of the major barriers. For our rural populations, there are also barriers to accessing healthcare services such as costs, health literacy and whānau understanding of the need for screening, and lack of transport.

“Self-screening offers women, Māori and non-Māori, the ability to safely screen themselves in a more discreet and less invasive way. The test is easy to use and women can do it themselves at home or in a toilet at their GP clinic.

General practices offering the self-test through the research project are Whanau Ora Community Care, James Street Doctors, and The Doctors Tikipunga. Hokianga Health will also begin offering it after staff training is completed on February 25.

To take part in the study, women need to be enrolled at one of the four medical centres offering the test, be aged between 25 and 69 years, and be due or overdue for a cervical screen.