A 21-year low on Cervical Cancer Screening in England

Julia Tinsley-Kent, Communications and Public Affairs Assistant

24th January 2019

Cervical cancer affects women of all ages. There are currently over 49,000 women living with or beyond the diagnosis in the UK, with a further 3,000 diagnosed every year.

We know that one day we can eliminate this cancer. This is through the HPV vaccination and cervical screening programmes that we are fortunate to have – with screening providing the best protection against the disease. Worryingly though, attendance for screening is falling year on year and is at a 21-year low in England alone. This means our vision of making cervical cancer a disease of the past is getting further away.

Over one in four women don’t take up their cervical screening invitation, with attendance even lower among certain groups of women. This includes young women, women with a learning disability and women from ethnic minorities. There is no single reason for declining attendance; instead there are a wide range of psychological, cultural, literary and physical factors presenting barriers to this potentially life-saving test. Recognising the barriers that exists for women of different ages and taking steps to address them is essential if we are to reverse the worrying decline in attendance. Among younger women for example those aged 25-35, a quarter cite embarrassment as stopping them from attending and almost three quarters (72%) don’t feel comfortable getting undressed before their test.

There is also widespread misunderstanding of the cause of cervical cancer. The majority of cases are caused by human Papillomavirus or HPV. Even though HPV is extremely common, there is a lack of public knowledge about the virus. A third of women haven’t heard of it and over a third are unaware of its link to cervical cancer.

There is a clear need for national action including awareness campaigns and changes to policy such as introducing self-sampling into the programme. At a local level, there is lots which can be done from engaging women through religious or community groups, putting on out of hours clinics and ensuring those with a physical disability are able to access the programme.

While we strive to reduce the impact of the disease, we must also ensure that those living with cervical cancer get the support and information that they need. This includes those living beyond the diagnosis, as the physical and psychological consequences of treatment can often last a lifetime. At Jo’s, we are there at every step providing quality information and dedicated services that offer a safe and supportive space for women and their loved ones. This includes our forum, helpline, Ask The Expert service and events for women living with and beyond cancer.

Cervical Cancer Prevention Week runs from 21st to 27th January and Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust are running their award-winning #SmearForSmear campaign. The campaign aims to raise awareness of cervical screening (smear tests), reminding and encouraging attendance and reassuring women that however they feel, they aren’t alone.