A free screening programme for cervical cancer that was due to be launched this summer looks likely to fall victim to Health Department budget cuts. Instead, the government may only send women reminders to take the test, which they will then have to pay for themselves. Under plans being considered, test results and patient information will be collated in a central registry and used to remind women when they are due to take their next test. The database will also help audit the effectiveness of the reminder programme and monitor its impact on the disease. 'The [Health Department's cervical screening] taskforce has been more or less told that there will probably be money for the registry database, but because of the economy, the taskforce has been told we need to use the existing [test] facilities,' a source close to the government said. The database will target all women who are sexually active. The women will be required to undergo two Pap smears 12 months apart and if the results are normal, they will be asked to come back for further tests at three-year intervals. The taskforce is also considering phasing in the accreditation of laboratories to ensure tests meet the required standards. The collating of test results by the central registry also means issues of patient confidentiality and consent will have to be dealt with, the source said. A spokesman for the Health, Welfare and Food Bureau said: 'The programme involves collaboration between public and private health service providers.' The 2001 census showed there were 2.9 million women aged over 15 in Hong Kong. Women are recommended to have Pap smears regularly once they become sexually active. The incidence of cervical cancer in Hong Kong is among the highest in the world, with between 450 and 500 new cases each year. About 150 women die annually. Alexander Chang, who is leaving Hong Kong after nine years as chief of cytopathology at Chinese University, said he was worried that the awareness campaign would fall flat if women were expected to pay for the tests. The New Zealand-born professor launched the Sha Tin Community Clinic for the Prevention of Cervical Cancer at the Prince of Wales Hospital in 1995. Funded by the Hong Kong Cancer Fund, it is the only hospital-based cervical cancer programme that offers the tests and follow-up services free of charge. Studies have shown that 50 per cent of women are screened in Hong Kong, compared to 85 per cent in Britain and 80 per cent in Australia. 'From the day we started, we said we could not ask the patients to pay because that is a barrier,' Professor Chang said. He added that it made sense for tests to be processed only at accredited laboratories. 'It is no good having a Pap smear programme that is not up to world standards,' he said. Legislator Lo Wing-lok, who represents the medical sector, said he agreed with the government's approach. 'I do not think the government has to do everything, including providing the tests and paying for it,' he said. However, Dr Lo said laboratories were already licensed by regulatory boards and he did not believe they needed to go through a further accreditation scheme.