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Over the past few years we have seen the importance and influence of Cervical Cancer Prevention Week grow and grow. Not only is it a great opportunity to put a spotlight on how cervical cancer can be prevented, but it also provides us at Jo’s with a focus to launch new research, generate debate with our peers into tacking the barriers to prevention and to meet and work with key health and policy influencers across the UK.
Our motivation and drive this year is stronger than ever. Why? Because we are seeing fewer and fewer women across the UK attending cervical screening (smear tests). In England the number attending is at the lowest for 19 years. The number of women being diagnosed with cervical cancer is also the highest (bar 2013) since 1999. That’s incredibly worrying when we know that thanks to the cervical screening programme and the HPV vaccine cervical cancer is a largely preventable cancer.
People often ask me what is going wrong and it is impossible to put it down to one or even a couple of issues. We know from our research that there is a raft of barriers to attending screening, from embarrassment, to fear of the result, to not feeling it is relevant, to being unable to book an appointment that can fit around busy lives.
I think accessibility plays a far bigger part than perhaps has previously been considered. We are incredibly lucky to have the UK cervical screening programme and it is often viewed worldwide as the ‘Gold Standard’. Quite simply it saves lives, 5,000 a year according to the experts. Despite this I feel the systems that enable women to be screened have not changed with the times and have not kept up with the advancements within the programme itself. In the majority of cases women have to call their GP to book an appointment, some can be screened in a sexual health clinic however that service is only provided in some areas and seems to be reducing. For women who work or who live far from their GP surgery a potentially large barrier exists with women unable to take time off work or get to appointments.
I strongly believe women should have the option to attend screening appointments at any GP practice and not just the one they are registered, for example one that is closer to work. Furthermore if we are to encourage more women to attend then something as simple as providing a time and appointment with the invitation that is sent to them could make a significant difference. We are all guilty of putting off or ignoring something we don’t want to do, but so many women have told us that this simple change would encourage them to attend or motivate them to contact their GP to arrange another time.
We also know from our research that for women who do not attend or delay their test, that if they had the opportunity to take a self test in their home that they could simply post back, they would do this. Through making the cervical screening programme more accessible, we have the opportunity to bring tens of thousands of women who currently don’t attend screening back into our incredible and life saving programme.
So my request and plea as we embark on Cervical Cancer Prevention Week 2017 is this: Please encourage your loved ones to attend cervical screening when they get that invitation, this is a message I want men and women to act on. For those working in health and policy, then as a matter of urgency please join us and work to make screening more accessible. Quite simply, if we don’t then we are only going to see more women diagnosed and potentially losing their lives, from what is a largely preventable disease.