Women are being urged to accept NHS cervical screening invites after new figures show three in ten of those eligible for screening do not take up the potentially life-saving offer.
The NHS invites women for screening every three to five years depending on their age, or more frequently if the high-risk human papillomavirus (HPV) is detected, with the programme saving thousands of lives annually.
The NHS Cervical Screening Programme, England 2022-2023 annual report, published by NHS England today, found that 68.7% of 25 to 64 year-olds had attended screening within the recommended period of time, compared to 69.9% the previous year.
The proportion was higher for 50- to 64-year-olds at 74.4%, compared to 65.8% for 25 to 49 year-olds.
In 2022-23, everyone who was due a test – a total of 4.62 million individuals aged 25 to 64 in England – was invited to book an appointment, and 3.43 million attended screening during the year.
Screening helps prevent cervical cancer by using a highly effective test to check for HPV, which is found in over 99% of all cervical cancers and which may cause abnormal cells to develop in the cervix. These abnormal cells can, over time, turn into cancer if left untreated.
Last week the NHS pledged to eliminate cervical cancer by 2040 by making it as easy as possible for people to get the lifesaving HPV vaccination and increasing cervical screening uptake.
It is still important to attend cervical screening appointments if you have been vaccinated against HPV as the vaccine does not provide protection from all types of HPV, so there is a still a small chance of getting cervical cancer.
Steve Russell, Chief Delivery Officer and National Director for Vaccinations and Screening for NHS England, said: “We know that it’s possible for the NHS to eliminate cervical cancer within the next two decades, but it relies on millions of people continuing to come forward for screening and vaccinations every year.
“The NHS is doing everything we can to achieve our ambition by making it as easy as possible to make appointments, with the latest figures showing the NHS arranged cervical screening for over 3.4 million women last year.”
Dr Kiren Collison, a GP and NHS England’s Deputy Medical Director for Primary Care, said: “Getting the HPV vaccination and attending screening is the best way of preventing cervical cancer, which is why it’s important that you book an appointment when invited.
“I’d also encourage anyone who has previously received an invitation and may have been unable to attend at the time, not to wait until you get another invitation before contacting your GP practice. You can still book a cervical screening appointment even if you were invited weeks, months or years ago.”
Martin Hunt, CEO of Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, said: “We urge all those who can attend to go and get tested. At Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, we understand that it’s not an easy appointment for everyone.
“It can sometimes be difficult to attend for a variety of reasons including work and childcare commitments, anxiety, and misinformation surrounding the test. But these tests are vital; they can prevent cancer.
“We’re here for anyone who needs us, with trustworthy information and free, confidential support to answer any questions or concerns you have about your appointment.”
Nicola Smith, Senior Health Information Manager at Cancer Research UK, said: “The cervical screening programme saves thousands of lives every year in the UK by preventing cancer and helping to stop the disease in its tracks. We encourage women and people with a cervix, such as trans men and non-binary people assigned female at birth, to take part.
“Barriers to participation can often lead to inequalities in diagnosis and treatment, so we support targeted action to increase awareness and widen access to this potentially life-saving programme.
“Some people can find cervical screening uncomfortable but there are ways to make your appointment work better for you. When booking, ask for a longer time slot, so you can speak through any concerns you may have. And remember, you are in control of your appointment.”
People can contact their GP practice to arrange a cervical screening appointment, and some sexual health clinics also offer cervical screening.
England is among the first countries in the world to set the elimination ambition for cervical cancer within the next two decades.
The World Health Organization considers cervical cancer to be eliminated as a public health problem when there is an incidence rate lower than four per 100,000 women.
Health and care professionals will be supported to identify those who most need the HPV vaccine through targeted outreach and offering jabs in more convenient settings.
The HPV vaccine prevents invasive strains of the virus, known to cause almost all cervical cancers, as well as some mouth and throat cancers. It is given to both girls and boys in secondary school to protect them against catching the HPV infection and developing into pre-cancerous and cancer cells.
More information on NHS cervical screening and how to book an appointment is available at www.nhs.uk/conditions/cervical-screening.
Read the full report: NHS Cervical Screening Programme, England 2022-2023