An Asian women's health symposium this week will be pushing for funding to employ "navigators" to steer Asian women towards regular cervical screening.

Cultural attitudes towards sex and health-seeking behaviour and the stigma of sexually transmitted infections are keeping thousands of Asian women from having a regular cervical smear, says forum organiser Ruth Davy.

Ignorance and cultural barriers are also turning Asian sexual health issues into "an explosion waiting to happen", and urgent research is needed to understand the extent of the problem, and how to help them access services, says Ms Davy, who is also chief executive of Wons, a nursing, education and health support organisation.

She says China's "concubine history" has contributed heavily to the sexual attitudes of some in the community, and it is made worse by the Asian sex industry's growth.

"Many young Asian women think that because they are monogamous it means they're safe. But if they think that their partners and husbands will remain faithful forever, well, they'll just have to think again," said Ms Davy.

In the three years to February, only 48.5 per cent of the 143,777 Asian women in the 20 to 69 age group in New Zealand have had cervical screening, with Auckland's figure even more dismal at 39.8 per cent of its 45,452 Asian women having tested.

The national average is 74.1 per cent, with Maori women on 52.3 per cent, Pacific women on 55.5 per cent and Europeans and other ethnicities on 84.6 per cent.

"The percentage of Asian women found with abnormal cervical smears and high grade cells are almost three times as high as European New Zealanders, and that's only from those who has been tested," Ms Davy said.

An audit of more than 5000 women conducted by Wons in 2005 found a high incidence of Human Papilloma Virus and cervical abnormalities in many Chinese and Korean women, Ms Davy said.

"Cervical cancer is one of the most preventable cancers, but it is just an explosion waiting to happen in health costs if we make no effort to help these women access appropriate health services early on."

Ms Davy said a woman who has regular cervical smear test every three years can reduce her risk of developing cervical cancer by 90 per cent, and said it will be more effective to have Asian navigators, than an expensive advertising campaign, to reach women in the community.

Other speakers at the symposium this Friday at Alexander Park include Minister for Ethnic and Women's Affairs Pansy Wong, Dr Shan McCan of Family Planning and Shamima Hafiz from the Fatima Foundation.

It will also discuss an urgent need for research into the high rate of sexually transmitted infections among Asian women because of cultural sexual attitudes and the growing Asian sex worker industry.

"Given some dynamics of migration, where for example wives are left behind in New Zealand and with lack of support and increasing difficulties of finding paid employment, a growing number of Asian women find themselves in the sex industry with little protection and support," Ms Davy said.

* Overcoming barriers to smear tests
CASE 1: Liza Ng, 52, diagnosed with cervical cancer last year

Liza Ng goes for an annual health check, but didn't think it was necessary to have a pap smear because it was not commonly done in her native Hong Kong.

"I thought an annual health check by my GP, which I do every year, was good enough, but I was wrong."

Ms Ng was told that she had cervical cancer when she began bleeding, and went to the doctor last year - and has undergone chemotherapy. Wons health promoter Betty Ling says Ms Ng has responded well to the treatment. Three Asian women on Wons' database, including Ms Ng, have been diagnosed with cervical cancer in the last year. Two have died.

CASE 2: Angel Zhang, 43, chlamydia sufferer

Angel Zhang, originally from China, has been re-infected with chlamydia, a sexually transmitted infection, three times - by her husband - whom she says visits prostitutes regularly.

"I have tried to self medicate with Chinese medicine because I am too embarrassed to go to the doctor, and I have pleaded with my husband to stop going to prostitutes, but he just says he will be more careful," said Ms Zhang in Mandarin.

"I don't have any family here except for my husband and I am too ashamed to tell my problem to anyone else."