A Third Of Younger Women In England Aren’t Getting Key Cancer Test

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Health leaders in England have urged younger women to take up scheduled smear tests in a bid to improve early detection of cervical cancer. The disease can be deadly, but finding it early significantly improves outcomes.

England aims to eliminate cervical cancer by 2040 — a target that will require high levels of screening, as well as vaccination and early intervention when cancer and pre-cancer are found.

But the latest figures show a third of women aged between 25 and 50 in England aren’t being screened when they should be.

Women in England are offered periodic cervical screening from the age of 24 onwards. These tests are free, as is any subsequent treatment under the country’s public health system.

The tests involve taking a sample from the cervix using a swab. A device called a speculum is usually used to open the vagina, enabling a clinician to insert the swab.

This process can be uncomfortable and even painful. But it’s just one of many reasons why a woman may delay or miss a screening.

A 2017 survey by charity Jo’s Cancer Trust found that more than a third of women aged 25-35 were embarrassed to attend their tests because of body image issues.

“Smear tests prevent 75% of cervical cancers so it is a big worry that so many young women, those who are most at risk of the disease, are unaware of the importance of attending. It is of further concern that body worries are contributing to non attendance,” the charity’s chief executive Robert Music said in a statement at the time. “Please don’t let unhappiness or uncertainty about your body stop you from attending what could be a life-saving test.”

The latest figures show the country is still failing to test as many young women as it needs to eradicate the disease.

Public health leaders say they are doing everything they can to improve access to tests.

“But in order to make [elimination] a reality we need to see more women coming forward for their cervical screening appointments when invited,” said Steve Russell, chief delivery officer and national director for vaccinations and screening for NHS England. “Even if you previously missed your appointment, don’t wait around for another invitation before contacting your GP practice — you can still book in now and this could save your life.”

What causes cervical cancer?

Almost all cervical cancers are linked to high-risk strains of a virus called human papillomavirus. It’s highly contagious but often presents with no symptoms.

The immune system can usually clear HPV infections by itself, but sometimes persistent cases can lead to cancer.

England recently started using HPV-first screenings, which check whether a woman is infected with certain strains of a virus that can increase the risk of developing cervical cancer.

Women with a high-risk HPV infection are usually invited for more regular screenings to make sure they haven’t developed any changes to their cervical cells.

Teenagers are now offered vaccines against certain high-risk HPV strains to reduce their chance of developing a range of cancers linked to the virus.

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