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Hundreds of lives will be spared every year in England thanks to a more sensitive cervical screening test that has been 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 the primary test within the NHS Cervical Cancer Screening Programme, combined with the effectiveness of the HPV vaccine.
The new and more sensitive test looks for traces of high risk Human Papillomavirus (HPV), of which 14 types are able to cause cervical cancer and nearly all cases of cervical cancer are attributable to HPV. Any tests that are HPV positive are checked for abnormal changes of the cervix. Signs of infection can now be spotted at an earlier stage, before potentially developing into cancer.
There are 2,500 new cases of cervical cancer in England every year but research says that a quarter of those could be prevented by using this new type of screening test. The introduction is part of the NHS Long Term Plan’s ambition to transform cancer care across the country, with a renewed focus on improved screening. The aim is to catch three quarters of all cancers at stage one and two, identifying them earlier when they are easier to treat and the chances of survival are 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.
“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.
Professor Johnson added that “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.”
Dr Pam Hall, Screening and Immunisation lead for NHS England and NHS Improvement in the East of England, said:
“In the East of England, latest figures show that last year nearly three-quarters of people attended their cervical screening appointment, which is slightly higher than the national average. However, there is still room for improvement and we want to see more people attending their appointments, so we are working on ways to make cervical screening as accessible and convenient as possible.
“We would encourage all women to reduce their risk of developing cervical cancer by coming forward for screening when they are invited, particularly those under 50 who are less likely to attend.”
Jo Churchill, Public Health Minister and MP for Bury St Edmunds 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.”
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:
“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.”
- The new primary screening test has replaced the liquid-based cytology test (which checks for abnormalities in the cervix) as the first line of testing within the NHS Cervical Screening Programme. Only samples that are positive for high risk HPV will need to be further analysed using liquid based cytology.
- Samples will continue to be taken in the same way. The only difference is that the sample of cells taken from a person’s cervix will screened for HPV in the first instance, instead of abnormal cells.
- HPV is a group of viruses with more than 100 types, with 14 types able to cause cervical cancer as well as some head and neck cancers.
- There has been a 75% reduction in mortality from cervical cancer since the early 1970s (Cancer Research UK statistics)
- In the East of England, cervical screening coverage is 74.0% in the target population of women aged 25-64 years old.
- 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. Figures from last year show that over one million people didn’t attend their appointment.