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There’s a new campaign in the works to address mixed messages about the need for Pap tests among women who have sex with women (WSW), starting with a series of focus groups in February.

“We’re trying to find out in the focus groups why WSW are not getting Pap tests,” says Cindy Weeds, coordinator of women’s programming at Planned Parenthood of Toronto. “We already know some women are being discouraged by healthcare providers, some think they don’t need them, some think it’s only for young women, but there could be other reasons. [Pap tests] are uncomfortable, invasive, [involves] penetration.”

On the upside regular testing can prevent fatalities. “Pap tests are the best screening tool we have to prevent cervical cancer,” says Weeds. “Cervical cancer is entirely preventable.”

According to the Ontario Cervical Screening Practice Guidelines all women should be screened within three years of their first vaginal sexual activity — including lesbian sex — and screened every year until at least age 70. Even vaginal sex between women can transmit HPV, the virus responsible for most cases of cervical cancer.

“Guidelines say very specifically that WSW should follow the same regiment as WSM [women who have sex with men],” says Weeds.

As stated on Cancer Care Ontario’s website, “Cervical cancer is preventable. Yet year after year about 500 women are diagnosed with cancer of the cervix and about 150 women die from this disease in Ontario.”

The forthcoming campaign is expected to involve print materials, event-based promotion and viral technology such as a campaign on Facebook. The cost of the program has not been determined but fundraising efforts are underway. The cost of the focus groups is being shared by PPT, Sherbourne Health Centre, Rainbow Health Ontario, Women’s College Hospital, Women’s Health in Women’s Hands, Asian Community AIDS Services and local sex shop Good for Her.