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Confused by the headlines this week?

Posted on: Wednesday, 22nd January 2020 by

Can cervical cancer be eliminated? Are we close? Or are we actually seeing increases in diagnoses?

This week is Cervical Cancer Prevention Week, and while it’s great that there is so much attention on cervical cancer, there have been a lot of conflicting and maybe confusing headlines and we want to help you understand what’s really going on.

On Monday NHS England released a story which said:

“There is “potential” to eliminate cervical cancer completely thanks to the change in primary test within the NHS Cervical Cancer Screening Programme, combined with the effectiveness of the HPV vaccine.” 

Read more >

Behind the headline:

We know that one day we can eliminate cervical cancer. This is through a combination of the HPV vaccination and cervical screening – especially now that the more sensitive HPV testing is being rolled out across the UK. 

However we have a long way to go and elimination is not happening anytime soon. 2,591 women were diagnosed with cervical cancer in England alone in 2017. The HPV vaccination means we are closer to eliminating cervical cancer among younger women, however we have many generations who haven’t been offered it! We also can’t get complacent as if cervical screening attendance falls or confidence in the vaccine reduces then there will be more people facing an increased risk of cervical cancer.

So yes, we can get there one day but for now, the focus must be on increasing awareness and uptake of vaccination and screening.

Today Cancer Research UK said:

Cervical cancer rates are soaring among women aged between 25-29.

Behind the headline:

Cervical cancer can be measured by incidence or rates, two different things. Incidence is the number of new cases of diagnosed in a specific time period, this is usually a year. Rates are calculated by looking at the frequency of cases within a specific period of time relative to a fixed population size, usually 100,000 people.

The headlines talk about rates, and while it is true that there has been a trend in cancer rates increasing among young people, it doesn’t show the whole picture.

There are lots of reasons behind increasing cervical cancer rates, especially among young women as the headlines say. This includes the age at which women are invited for cervical screening changing from 25 to 24.5 meaning a larger group was invited, plus better diagnostics and tests meaning more cancers are picked up at an even earlier stage. 

However if you look at the annual statistics, which means cancer incidence, the number of women diagnosed each year has actually fallen over the last few years! In 25-29 year olds incidence has dropped from 412 in 2015 to 310 in England and increases have actually been higher among those in their 30s and 40s, this is women who have not been offered the vaccination and where screening attendance has been low for many years.In Scotland it has fallen from 43 to 9 diagnoses in this age group in a year!

We hope these positive trends continue and what they do do is show us where we need to focus our attention. Right now, that is women in their 30s and 40s where incidence has increased who missed the introduction of the vaccine. 

It’s also been said:

Screening uptake hits record lows.


Behind the headline:

This isn’t actually true and cervical screening attendance has increased across the UK! It’s only slightly, however after many years of falling this is something to celebrate. Find out the latest statistics >

Also in the news today Public Health England said:

Cancer-causing HPV 16 and 18 infections are now extremely uncommon in young sexually active women in England, following the introduction of HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccination in 2008. 

Read more >

Behind the headline:

The HPV vaccine has been offered to girls born from 1st September 1990 and new research has found significant reductions in the two strains of HPV that cause 70% of cervical cancers among young women. This is really positive as it should lead to fewer cell changes and even greater reductions in cervical cancer diagnoses among these age groups.

Data from Scotland has already showed reductions in cell changes in vaccinated women so we know it is having a massive impact already! This is just further good news which will hopefully get us closer to elimination.

One final story today:

A group of researchers said: “We found insufficient data to clearly conclude that HPV vaccine prevents the higher-grade abnormal cell changes that can eventually develop into cervical cancer.”

Behind the headline:

The HPV vaccine is recommended by organisations including the World Health Organisation (WHO) as an integral part of cervical cancer elimination plans. It is highly effective. This piece simply questions the exact level of protection. 

So, what’s the take home message from a busy week of headlines?

One day we will eliminate cervical cancer. However a lot of work needs to happen before we get to that day. It’s only through a combination of high uptake of both HPV vaccination and cervical screening that we can achieve our vision of eliminating this cancer. Some of the headlines should serve as a reminder that we can’t sit back and get complacent. 


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