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Hundreds of lives will be spared every year in England thanks to a more sensitive cervical screening test rolled out as part of the NHS Long Term Plan.
NHS experts said that 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.
The new and more sensitive test now looks for traces of high risk Human Papillomavirus (HPV), which causes nearly all cases of cervical cancer. Any tests that are HPV positive are then checked for abnormal changes of the cervix.
HPV is a group of viruses with more than 100 types, but 14 types can cause cervical cancer as well as some head and neck cancers.
It means that any sign of infection will be spotted at an earlier stage before it could potentially develop into cancer.
Since the beginning of December, every part of the country has had the new way of screening in place.
There are 2,500 new cases of cervical cancer in England every year but research says that a quarter of those could be prevented with this new way of testing.
The introduction is part of the NHS Long Term Plan’s ambitions to catch tens of thousands more cancers earlier, when it is easier to treat and the chance of survival is higher.
Professor Peter Johnson, national clinical director for cancer said: “Screening is one of the most effective ways of protecting against cervical cancer and there is no doubt this new way of testing will save lives. It is vitally important that all eligible people attend for their screening appointments, to keep themselves safe.
“Combined with the success of the HPV vaccine for both boys and girls, we hope that cervical cancer can be eliminated altogether by the NHS in England. The chances of surviving cancer are at a record high, but there is always more we can do, as we continue to deliver our Long Term Plan.”
Professor Johnson added that cervical cancer often causes no symptoms during the early stages of the disease, which is why it is “especially important that people attend their tests and that those who are eligible get vaccinated against HPV.”
Robert Music, Chief Executive, Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust said: “It is exciting that we are seeing advances in cervical cancer prevention and must continue to look to the future to make sure our cervical screening programme continues to adapt and evolve.
“The day that cervical cancer is a disease of the past is one we should be aiming to get to as soon as possible. Cervical screening is such an important test, but there are many reasons it can be difficult to attend. We must continue to understand and tackle these to ensure as many women benefit from this far more sensitive test and we save as many cancers diagnoses and lives as possible.”
Professor Anne Mackie, Director of Screening at Public Health England said: “With HPV vaccinations for all year 8 pupils and HPV testing available nationally, cervical cancer promises to become very rare indeed. This is a truly momentous achievement, but to ensure we consign this disease to the past we must keep vaccination rates high and continue to provide safe and acceptable screening for all women.”
Jo Churchill, Public Health Minister said: “Thousands fewer women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer as a result of improved screening services and the HPV vaccine and it’s incredible to think that cervical cancer could be eradicated for good.
“The NHS Long Term Plan has committed to an overhaul of screening programmes, new investment in state of the art technology and a boost in research which will help more people survive cancer each year. I encourage all women to attend screening appointments.”
Joanna Gray, 30 from Manchester said: “I still remember being told that I had HPV and cell changes. It was really scary and made me panic. The doctor at the hospital told me that if I’d left this for another three years then it could have been very, very different. However now I’m all clear and am really grateful that it was caught so early. I think it’s amazing that smear tests prevent cervical cancer before it even has a chance to begin”
The latest figures show that seven in 10 people attended their cervical screening appointment last year but that one million people didn’t attend their appointment.
Women and people with a cervix aged between 24.5 and 49 are eligible for screening every three years, whilst those aged between 50 and 64 should be screened every five years.
The NHS Long Term Plan will transform cancer care across the country with a renewed focus on improved screening to catch three quarters of all cancers at stages one and two.