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This blog was originally published on the Huffington Post website.
We have uncovered a ticking time bomb. One that is extremely concerning. Cervical cancer currently claims 1,000 UK lives every year and the number of women diagnosed every day has recently jumped from 8 to 9, that’s over 3,200 a year. Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust want to see this awful disease become a thing of the past and we recently commissioned modelling research looking into when this could become a reality. What we uncovered shocked us. Thanks to the HPV vaccine and cervical screening, cervical cancer is a preventable disease. The cervical screening programme alone can prevent up to 75% of cervical cancers from developing, however the number of women attending screening is on a long term decline and over 1 in 4 women do not attend this potentially life saving test.
Our modelling work has shown us that if current uptake of cervical screening remains the same, cervical cancer is set to rocket in the older age group. By 2040 the number of women aged 60-64 who receive a diagnosis will have increased significantly by 16% and among 70-74 year olds jumping to 85%. And there is a very real threat that if uptake doesn’t improve we will see a 100% increase in deaths among women aged 60-64. If screening uptake was to continue to decline, this increase in mortality would be even greater and what concerns me most is that the way rates are currently falling, this could sadly become a reality. Among women aged 60-64 screening attendance is at an 18 year low while we have already seen an almost 10% increase in cancer diagnoses.
We have previously undertaken research which has shown that there are so many reasons behind women not attending screening and these vary across age groups, ethnicities and socio-economic groups. Lack of time, embarrassment and not understanding what the test is for are but a few. We know cervical screening isn’t fun but ultimately it saves lives and so we want every woman invited for screening to attend. We started Cervical Screening Awareness Week in 2008 to encourage more people to take this five minute test and break down the myths, taboos and lack of understanding that exist around it.
You will have guessed by the statistics above that older women are currently a very big concern for us and so we surveyed over 1,000 women aged over 50 to find out what they know about cervical cancer and what is stopping them attending screening. We found 1 in 3 have delayed attending, 1 in 5 did not agree that regular cervical screening reduces the risk of cervical cancer and 1 in 4 did not think they were important to have regularly. Of those who have delayed screening, 25% find it hard to book an appointment at a convenient time, 20% have had a previous bad experience and 19% find it painful since being older (16% since the menopause in particular).
What is evident is that action needs to be taken urgently to improve the current situation. Relevance, accessibility and flexibility are significant barriers to cervical screening among this group and coupled with our modelling work, it has never been more crucial that we act now!
Research into HPV self-sampling testing is urgently needed allowing women to self test in the privacy of their own home. We know 1 in 4 women who have delayed attending want the opportunity to self test and it would overcome many of the barriers that exist for this age group. We must also see health and policy makers agree to immediate and greater investment in targeted cervical cancer prevention programmes to increase uptake of cervical screening.
This Cervical Screening Awareness Week (13-19 June) help us get closer to our vision of making cervical cancer a disease of the past, as I am afraid that if we do not tackle this with a sense of urgency we are only exacerbating the ticking time bomb.