Free cervical cancer screening for maids

Pilot programme available at National University Cancer Institute and KK Hospital

Foreign domestic workers between the ages of 30 and 65 can get free cervical cancer screening at two hospitals here under an initiative by The Society for Colposcopy and Cervical Pathology of Singapore (SCCPS).

The two hospitals - which are offering the screening under a pilot programme - are the National University Cancer Institute, Singapore (NCIS) at the National University Hospital and KK Women's and Children's Hospital.

The programme provides a test for high-risk strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV), which causes cervical cancer. The test has been adopted in countries such as Australia and the Netherlands.

Last Wednesday, the Ministry of Health announced that the test will also be adopted and subsidised here as it is more accurate than the currently recommended pap smear test. It also announced that from next month, Secondary 1 girls will be able to opt in for free HPV vaccinations in schools.

The free test for maids, meanwhile, is being initiated under the Helping Our Helpers programme, a partnership between the SCCPS, the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics, Roche Diagnostics, and the two hospitals offering the screening.

SCCPS president Joseph Ng, who is also a senior consultant at the gynaecologic oncology division at NCIS, said that since the programme was piloted in September last year, about 100 maids have been screened.

The pilot programme will continue until 200 maids have been screened, but plans are under way for a second phase.

He added that the new HPV test usually costs $99 at NUH for Singaporeans and permanent residents. For non-residents, including maids, it costs $135.

LIKE A DEATH SENTENCE

Since 2002, in all the time I've been practising here, I think I've come across only one employer who paid for the helper to get cervical cancer treatment in Singapore. Most just send them home to die.

DR JOSEPH NG, a senior consultant at the gynaecologic oncology division at the National University Cancer Institute, Singapore. As cervical cancer screenings are not part of the required medical tests for maids applying to work here, Dr Ng said he "very frequently" sees maids with advanced cervical cancer.

Dr Ng said that while it is encouraging that the Government is stepping up cervical cancer detection and prevention efforts for Singaporeans, maids are currently underserved as such screenings are not part of the medical tests they are required to undergo when they apply to work here.

As a result, Dr Ng said he "very frequently" sees maids with advanced cervical cancer.

"That's a death sentence for them because cervical cancer treatment in Singapore costs between $30,000 and $40,000," said Dr Ng.

Employers are required to buy medical insurance for their maids with a minimum annual coverage of $15,000.

Dr Ng said: "Since 2002, in all the time I've been practising here, I think I've come across only one employer who paid for the helper to get cervical cancer treatment in Singapore. Most just send them home to die."

Although the screening is free under the programme, convincing employers to take their maids for a screening remains a challenge, he said.

"One concern they often have is the cost of follow-up tests and procedures should their helpers test positive for HPV."

When detected early, pre-cancerous cells can be removed with a simple procedure in a doctor's office and costs less than $1,000, he said.

A spokesman for the programme said: "Cervical cancer is the 10th most common cancer affecting women in Singapore, but the second in countries such as the Philippines, India, Indonesia and Myanmar. Considering this risk, Helping Our Helpers aims to lower the incidence of cervical cancer by offering HPV testing to women who otherwise may not have access."

Information about the pilot programme can be found online at www.sccps.org/hoh/

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 12, 2019, with the headline 'Free cervical cancer screening for maids'. Print Edition | Subscribe