No room for complacency during Cervical Cancer Prevention Week

Every day 9 women in the UK are diagnosed with cervical cancer and 3 women will lose their lives to the disease. Cervical cancer is the most common cancer in women under 35 but is largely preventable thanks to cervical screening and the HPV vaccination programme.

But, statistics show that the number of women aged 25-29 years of age being screened for cervical cancer is the lowest in any age group and numbers attending for screening are falling year on year. Surveys undertaken by cancer charities indicate embarrassment and a lack of understanding of the causes of cervical cancer may be behind the fall in numbers attending.

The number of women dying from cervical cancer has halved over the past 28 years as a result of the NHS screening programme as well as improvement in treatment.

Despite this success over 5,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year. Some of these women may have delayed coming forward for screening for a variety of reasons but treatment of early changes detected by screening can prevent women from developing cancer.

Nigel Acheson, NHS England South Region Medical Director and lead for Cancer said: “We have noticed a fall in attendance of younger women over the past few years, and are concerned that this trend may increase due to misunderstanding of the level of protection that the HPV vaccination offers. The first girls who were vaccinated against HPV are now eligible for screening as they reach their 25th birthday. Although they are protected against the two most common HPV types that cause 70% of cervical cancers, the risk is not completely eliminated and screening is still an important part of preventing cancer.” 

NHS England and Public Health England are supporting Cervical Cancer Prevention Week which runs from January 22-28.  The week aims to raise awareness of the importance of cervical screening and its role in preventing cancer, as well as encouraging women to go for their screening test when invited. 

Mr Acheson, who is a consultant gynaecological oncologist  (a specialised field of medicine that focuses on cancers of the female reproductive system) added: “It is really important for young women to understand the importance of attending cervical screening as it can detect pre-cancer abnormalities, which, if left untreated, may develop into cancer. Screening is for people without symptoms as a preventative measure.

“The screening test is relatively simple, takes about 5 minutes and is performed by the Practice Nurse at your GP Surgery.  95% of results will be normal and of those that are not, the vast majority can be treated very easily and will never develop in to cancer.

NHS England’s Screening and Immunisation teams work with GP practices to increase awareness and are supporting Cervical Cancer Prevention Week.

NHS England has signed up to the Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust ‘Time to Test’ pledge demonstrating commitment to raising awareness of cervical cancer prevention in the workplace and ensuring female employees can access cervical screening. The pledge states:

The health of our employees comes first and if employees cannot make appointments out of working hours, we will find a way to make sure they can attend cervical screening, even if it means doing so during their working day.

Women can reduce their risk of cervical cancer by

  • Practicing safe sex. Condoms can help reduce the risk of being infected with HPV
  • Not smoking - The risk of developing cervical cancer if you are a non-smoker, on average, half that of a woman who is smoker
  • Attending cervical screening when invited: this can help to find cervical abnormalities and HPV infections before they are able to develop into cervical cancer.

Vaccination: getting the HPV vaccination if you are eligible (for girls at school in Year 8) will protect you from the high-risk HPV types 16 and 18 that cause 70% off all cervical cancers.

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