Assistant Minister for Health and Aged Care, doorstop - 18 November 2023

Read the transcript of Assistant Minister Kearney's doorstop at the Australian Centre of the Prevention of Cervical Cancer

The Hon Ged Kearney MP
Assistant Minister for Health and Aged Care

Media event date:
Date published:
Media type:
General public

SUBJECTS: Cervical cancer elimination, Indo-Pacific.

GED KEARNEY, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE: I'm Ged Kearney, I'm the Assistant Minister for Health and Aged Care.


I'm very pleased to be at the Australian Centre for the Prevention of Cervical Cancer with its Executive Director, Professor Marion Saville.

I'm pleased to have Dr. Lucas de Toca, who is the Australian Ambassador for Global Health. And Professor Adeeba Binti Kamarulzaman from Monash University and the Rose Foundation.  


We're here because today is the Cervical Cancer Elimination Day of Action. I'm very pleased to say that Australia is well on-track to being the first country in the world to eliminate cervical cancer. This is absolutely amazing - to be a world first in this area.  


How have we done this? Well, the Australian Government has dedicated $48.2 million to a plan to eliminate cervical cancer amongst women and people with a cervix.


We have done this through an amazing screening program, including, I'm pleased to say, a self-testing, a self-screening, program where women can do a screening themselves. We all know how awful it is to go and get a pap smear. This innovation, which is an Australian-first, an Australian innovation - which Professor Saville will speak to more broadly - means that women do not have to go to that pap smear. They can do it themselves. This has been an amazing innovation.


We are collecting better data. We're going to make sure that we have national data, so we know how to better target screening and target treatment.  


We are actually making sure that, with our vaccination program - vaccinating against HPV, which we know is a precursor to cervical cancer - we're extending that screening to boys. So, 90% of all girls and 90% of boys will get vaccinated from HPV and this is amazing.  


We are also making sure that our priority populations get special attention. If you are a First Nations woman, you are twice as likely to get cervical cancer in Australia. So, there will be special targeted assistance for First Nations communities, for our LGBTIQA+ community and for other priority populations in Australia.  


On top of this, we are pleased to announce a further $12.5 million to establish partnerships with organisations to work to ensure we are extending our expertise in this area to the Indo-Pacific, to our Indo-Pacific neighbours.


We know that cervical cancer rates are dramatically higher in the Pacific and amongst Pacific women and people with a cervix than it is in Australia.  


This is a great announcement today. We should be incredibly proud that Australia is leading the world in the elimination of cervical cancer.


I'd like to hand over to Professor Saville now.


Professor Marion Saville AM, Executive Director of the Australian Centre for the Prevention of Cervical Cancer: Hi, I'm Marion Saville, I'm the Executive Director of the Australian Centre for the Prevention of Cervical Cancer.


Reporter: How is it possible that we could eliminate it sooner?


Professor Saville: Well, it's possible to eliminate cervical cancer because it's almost always caused by Human Papilloma Virus and we've got really effective interventions - vaccination and screening.  


We are going very well with cervical cancer elimination, but this new strategy and this new investment announced today will really help us push towards the finish line and get us first in the world to reach the magic target of four per 100,000. And importantly, of course, address those inequities that the Assistant Minister talked about.


Reporter: Talk us through the strategies that are going to help get us there.


Professor Saville: The Strategy talks about the three pillars of cervical cancer elimination. These are the globally agreed pillars of vaccination, screening, and access to treatment. The WHO has recommended that countries aim to have 90% of girls vaccinated. In Australia, we have a vaccination program that is available for boys and girls and we want to reach that target for both.  


For cervical cancer prevention, there is a contribution from herd immunity by vaccinating boys. And of course, the vaccinated boys are able to avoid other cancers.


Reporter: And we changed the way we've done things, like as we've kind of heard, it's not just about getting a pap smear anymore, is it?


Professor Saville: No, Australia got organised with its screening program in 1991. That pap smear program, over the following 15 years, halved the rate of cervix cancer. But our rates, although low, have plateaued and are not quite where we want to be.  


In 2017, we switched to a better screening program on the basis of HPV tests - instead of pap smears - and they're much more accurate for detecting precancerous abnormalities, so they can be treated before a cancer ever develops.


As the Assistant Minister said, in the middle of last year, July 1, we were very pleased to see the Australian Government announcing that self-collection using a swab like this, a woman, or a person with a cervix, can be given that by her GP or nurse, or in a range of other settings, and then able to take that sample from the vagina very simply and easily. It's easy for people to do, it's very accurate, and just as good as a test taken with a speculum.

So, this has been transformational and early data is showing we're reaching the people we've never been able to reach before. That will be critical to reaching the elimination target and addressing inequity.


Reporter: It goes without saying but what will this mean for patients and people with cervixes?


Professor Saville: Look, I think this is a cancer that is entirely preventable. So, every cancer is a tragedy. And these are cancers that typically occur in mid-adult life when women and people with cervixes are very important to their families and communities.


So, being able to completely avoid these with a simple gynaecological procedure -- if your screening test is overdue. When I say 'simple' it is still a procedure, but when compared with cancer management, it's something that can be done as an outpatient by a gynaecologist and it's not really the big hurdle that people with a cancer diagnosis face when they go into treatment that takes some time and of course, has side effects.


Reporter: And why is it that Australia is leading the way?


Professor Saville: I think we're leading the way for a couple of reasons. It's decades of investment into the screening program, and, you know, the pap program did very, very well. And I think it's not just the technology used, but the organisation of the program, the use of registers to remind people and recall people, lab regulation, meaning that Australians can be assured of a high-quality test when their screening test goes to any accredited lab in Australia.


Reporter: Right, that's all from my end. But is there anything else you wanted to touch on?


Professor Saville: It’s very exciting that we're going to get there first, but of course, we have near neighbours -- Papua New Guinea, countries in the Western Pacific -- where there is no access currently, or very limited access, to any screening or vaccination. In those countries, the rates of cancer are 30 or so per 100,000, not the 6.5 we have here in Australia, when compared to the world population.

We can make a really big difference in the lives of people around the Pacific, by bringing what we've got, working in partnership to figure out how it will work in their countries, but providing that technical assistance and support. It's a really awesome opportunity to make a difference.   

Dr Lucas de Toca, Australian Ambassador for Global Health: Hi, I'm Lucas de Toca and I'm Australia's Ambassador for Global Health.


Reporter: Talk us through what brings you here today and what you're hoping to implement and see.


Dr de Toca: Today, Assistant Minister Kearney, Minister Wong and Minister Conroy announced an investment as part of our Partnerships for a Healthy Region initiatives to expand and share the great success of Australia's journey towards the elimination of cervical cancer with our neighbours in the Pacific and Southeast Asia.  


Australia has been leading the way with expertise, with policy, with technical knowledge. However, what we see across the region is that women and girls and people cervixes in low- and middle-income countries are at much higher risk of mortality from cervical cancer - up to 13 times higher than what we see in Australia. Particularly, key populations, like women living with HIV, have six times the chances of dying with cervical cancer.  

What this new partnership is going to do, with up to $12.5 million of investment in countries across our region, is to bring that expertise so that screening, access to vaccinations and treatment, can happen. The key to this is that the leadership that we have locally, and the leadership drive for people in all these countries to tackle this issue, join up and deliver effective programs in our neighbourhood.


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