By Baroness Hussein-Ece - 13th February 2012
Baroness Hussein-Ece calls for a generic and more easily accessible smear test service for young women in order to prevent cervical cancer.
Around 1,000 women die of cervical cancer in the UK each year. Not going for cervical screening is one of the biggest risk factors for developing cervical cancer, and almost half of the women who develop cervical cancer in the UK have never had a cervical screening test.
I was prompted to put an oral question in the Lords, on what appear to be variations in the age women are first called for a smear test, after receiving an email from a young woman who had developed symptoms at age 24 and was refused a smear test by her GP. She was told she had to wait until she was 25 to qualify. She had been sexually active since her teens, and had a child.
She finally paid for a private smear test and was diagnosed with stage 2a cervical cancer. Stage 2b is when the cancer spreads to other internal organs, and stage 3 is pretty much untreatable. She is in remission, but is convinced had she waited until her 25th birthday, she would not be alive.
For women in England and Northern Ireland, you are invited to have an NHS smear test every three years from the age of 25, until you reach 50, and then it’s every five years. If you live in Scotland, it’s every three years between the ages of 20-60. And in Wales, women will be called every three years from the age of 20-64.
Why the variation, which understandably causes some confusion?
Unsurprisingly, 18-24 year-olds are least likely to know what a smear test is (90 per cent) and that the NHS provides screening (81 per cent). Researchers noted in 2008 that the incidence of high-grade pre-cancerous lesions was increasing in younger women.
Reality star, Jade Goody’s high-profile death of cervical cancer at the age of 27, resulted in a rise in the number of 25-30 year-old women being tested, but this group remains least likely to respond to the invitation for a smear test.
Following Jade Goody’s death, the evidence was reviewed in 2009 by the independent Advisory Committee on Cervical Screening (ACCS) and, after consulting leading experts and cancer charities, they concluded the age limit should remain at 25.
Although routine testing under 25 would, in these times of constraint, be unlikely to be brought back, I do believe if someone is having problems at a younger age, they should not be refused a test.
18-24 year-old women are more prone to contracting the HPV virus which can cause cervical cancer. Vaccinations to all girls between the ages of 12 and 18 started in autumn 2009. It is still too early to evaluate how effective HPV vaccine is, and no study has been conducted long enough to observe the development of cervical cancer or cervical cancer deaths post-vaccine.
I believe it’s important younger women also be given the correct information from their teens to seek help if they develop symptoms. The present information service seems to be confusing and not easily accessed by younger women.
Baroness Hussein-Ece was raised to the peerage as Baroness Hussein-Ece of Highbury in the London Borough of Islington.