A world without cervical screening
The chances are if you’re a woman past the age of puberty in England, you’ll already know plenty about the cervical screening process. Whether or not you’ve experienced it yourself, or just heard about it from older friends and relatives, cervical screening has become a dependable feature of life in the UK.
In 2020, this quick test designed to find any abnormal cells in the cervix is celebrating its 32nd birthday in the form we know it today. So, depending on your age, you may have never known a world without cervical screening. And although none of us feel much like celebrating when the screening nurse asks us to strip from the waist down, we’re in fact in a very fortunate position.
Shockingly, it was estimated that in 1992, there would have been 57% more cases of cervical cancer in England had women not been screened previously. And more recent studies suggest that, had standardised cervical screening not been introduced back in 1988, overall cervical cancer incidence rates would be three times higher today. Cervical screening is still preventing cervical cancer and detecting it earlier to save women’s lives.
What’s changed and why?
In order to keep the screening process as effective as possible, it must keep evolving.
Under the old process, cells from screening samples were checked under a microscope for abnormalities that could lead to cancer.
Those with abnormalities were referred for further tests and treatment, while those who received a normal result would be screened again in three or five years’ time, depending on their age.
From December 2019, screening samples will be checked for human papillomavirus (HPV) infection first. Nearly all cases of cervical cancer are linked to HPV, and the chances of having abnormal cervical cells or cervical cancer without also having HPV infection are very low. HPV is a very common virus with about 8 in 10 women getting at least one type of it during their life.
However, some types of HPV are more likely to lead to cervical cancer than others, so the test will focus on identifying those high-risk strains. Those who test negative for high-risk HPV will be invited for a routine screening as normal in three or five years’ time, depending on their age.
Those who test positive for high-risk HPV will have their samples tested for abnormalities. If abnormalities are present, they will receive further tests and treatment.
If there are no abnormalities, they will be screened again in 12 months’ time. After three years, a person with high-risk HPV will be referred for a test called a colposcopy to check if any abnormal cells are present in the cervix, even if sample tests haven’t found any abnormalities. The changes in the cervical screening process will help identify women at high risk of developing cervical cancer and save lives by determining their risk earlier. The cervical screening test is becoming more accurate and making sure women with high-risk HPV strains will now have access to more screening.
So, what changes for me?
Nothing at all. All you need to do is respond to your screening invitation when you receive it. Screening is routinely offered for women and people with a cervix:
• aged 25-49 – every 3 years
• aged 50-64 – every 5 years
• aged 65 and over – only if you’ve recently had abnormal test results
Why should I go to my cervical screening?
Cervical screening can stop cervical cancer from ever developing.
And although it’s something people often not something people look forward to, finding and treating abnormal cells really can save your life.
In Yorkshire, the great news is the proportion of people attending their cervical screening within the target timeframe is slightly higher than the England average. However, there are areas within the county that rank much lower than the rest of England. We want to spread the message far and wide that attending your screening is a lifesaver.
Should I still go to my cervical screening if I’ve had the HPV vaccine?
Yes! It’s still important to go for cervical screening even if you had the vaccine when you were younger. There are many strains of the HPV virus and the current HPV vaccine doesn’t protect you against every type. The vaccine means that in the future, fewer people will carry the HPV virus but it’s still important to keep on going to any screening you’re invited to.