Maori women encouraged to have regular cervical smears

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A Wellington GP, who features in new radio ads, is encouraging women to have regular cervical smears. The radio and magazine ads are part of promotions for the National Cervical Screening Programme.

Dr Arlene Smyth (Nga Puhi) works at the Island Bay Medical Centre and is a part-time lecturer in Obstetrics & Gynaecology at the Wellington School of Medicine.

The mother of three, who grew up in Porirua, says the ads contain simple messages about the need for regular cervical smears, and thinks thats where their effectiveness lies, rather than overwhelming people with a huge amount of science.

She says that these days, with far more female GPs, many medical practices having female nurses who can do smears, and trained, non-medical smear takers who will do special marae visits, its easier than ever for women to have regular smears.

Having regular cervical smears can reduce a womans risk of developing cervical cancer by 90 percent. Maori and Pacific women currently have lower cervical screening rates and higher rates of cervical cancer than other women, although the gap is closing.

Arlene says there is still some misunderstanding about cervical smears. Some women say if Im not having babies any more or Im not sexually active I dont need to have them, or Ive got no symptoms so everythings fine and I dont need to do anything.

But she says the reasons women, and Maori women in particular, resist having regular smears can be complex.

Its not all about money because, as a practice, weve offered free smears for women with high needs, and the uptake was very low. Weve tried Saturday morning and evening smear clinics and it doesnt make a lot of difference. Getting to the doctor can be an issue, getting time off work and childcare can be issues, and theres not one answer.

And from a cultural perspective, for Maori, the gynaecological part of a woman is a taonga. Its precious and therefore not something that you would show to everyone.

I see my job as trying to reduce the embarrassment that some women feel, to help women relax and get them used to the idea that I do lots of smears.

I tell them I think of it like brushing our teeth. Its just something that we have to do, and we feel so much better after weve done it. Often, women find that the anxiety about having a smear is a bigger obstacle than actually having a smear!

Of course, Arlene also sees the results of women not having regular smears in her practice. One of her patients, in her 60s, had resisted having a smear for about ten years. She eventually came in with abnormal bleeding, and she had cervical cancer. Shes fine now, but the treatment she needed was much more invasive, and so much more unpleasant than if shed just had the smears.

She says do it for your wh?nau is a very powerful message for M?ori women.

If we dont want to do something just for us, then the reminder that we need to be around for our families means a lot. We only need to look at the statistics and the number of our kaumatua and kuia who are dying far too early.

In the 36 months to January 2010, 54 percent of Maori women had cervical smears as part of the Cervical Screening Programme, compared with 47 percent in the 36 months to September 2007.

The numbers are coming up but theyre nowhere near where they need to be, says Arlene, who has donated her fee for doing the radio and magazine ads to the Wellington Womens Refuge, which her practice has supported for many years.

September is Cervical Screening Awareness Month, and women are being encouraged to have a smear if its due or to think about when they last had a cervical smear.

The test can detect changes to cells in the cervix that, if left untreated, could become cancerous. About 160 New Zealand women develop cervical cancer every year and about 60 die from it.

But cervical cancer is one of the most preventable of all cancers and regular cervical smear tests every three years could save your life because they reduce your risk of developing cervical cancer by 90 percent.

Women who are not sure when their smear is due, or who want to become part of the Programme, can ring the freephone number 0800 729 729.

Smear tests are available from:

  • your doctor or practice nurse
  • Family Planning
  • sexual health services
  • marae-based or other Maori health centres
  • community health services, such as womens health centres.

Cervical Screening Awareness Month is coordinated by the National Screening Unit, in partnership with Stayfree. During the month, women can enter an online competition to go in the draw to win 1 of 1000 Neutrogena lip glosses worth $24.95 go to www.cervicalscreening.govt.nz to enter.

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