Word on Health

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Word On Cervical Screening

Our grateful thanks to Jo's Trust for their contribution to this week's report and for the use of the information below.

Cervical Screening (smear test)

5 million UK women are invited to cervical screening annually. It is estimated that the UK Cervical Screening Programme saves around 5,000 lives each year.

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland women are invited for screening from the age of 25-64 every 3 to 5 years depending on age. In Scotland they are invited between 20 and 60 every 3 years - this rose to 25-64 on April 1st, 2016. 1 in 5 UK women aged 25-64 doesn't take up their screening invitation.

As reported by the BBC 1 in 3 women over 50 has delayed or not attended their cervical screening test, which should take place every five years, according to a survey of a 1000 over 50's women by the cervical cancer charity, Jo's Trust. The average delay was more than two years, but 1 in 10 put off the test for more than five years.  

The survey found a lack of understanding of cervical cancer and cancer screening among women in that age group.

As a result, by 2040, Jo's Trust believes cases of cervical cancer could increase by 16% among 60-64 year-olds and by 85% among 70-74 year-olds if screening uptake stays at the same level.

Tips for screening

  • Make sure you discuss any concerns with your GP or practise nurse. Jo's Trust helpline (0808 802 8000) is also open weekdays should you want to talk about your cervical screening test.
  • A few points to remember before going for your screening:
  • Do not have sexual intercourse 24 hours before your screening as sperm, spermicidal gel, and lubricants may make it difficult to get a good sample of cells from the cervix.
  • If vaginal pessaries have been prescribed to treat an infection then postpone your screening for at least a week after the treatment has finished.
  • If you are using a vaginal oestrogen cream for menopause symptoms, do not apply it on the day of your screening.
  • Do not douche or use a tampon for at least two days before your screening.
  • The sample taker should cover you with a paper towel – however, you can always wear a skirt or bring a scarf if you want to cover yourself up.
  • The more relaxed you are, the less discomfort you will feel.
  • You can bring a family member or friend with you for moral support.
  • If you feel any discomfort let the nurse know. You can also ask for a different sized speculum.
  • If you’d rather not have your cervical screening done at your GP, you can be screened at a sexual health clinic.

Cervical cancer is the most common cancer in women under 35. Every day in the UK 8 women are diagnosed and 3 women die of cervical cancer. Over 300,000 UK women a year are told they have a cervical abnormality that could require treatment. 

Cervical cancer is often symptomless. However, the most common symptoms are:

  • Abnormal bleeding during or after sexual intercourse or between periods
  • Postmenopausal bleeding
  • Unusual and/or unpleasant vaginal discharge
  • Discomfort or pain during sex
  • Lower back pain

Human Papillomavirus (HPV)

99.7% of cervical cancers are caused by HPV. Around 13 high-risk types of HPV are responsible for causing cervical cancer. The high-risk types 16 and 18 are most prevalent, causing 70% of cervical cancers.

80% of women are infected with genital HPV at some point in their lives, but never know they have been affected because HPV is usually cleared (without treatment) by the body’s immune system.

There are currently two vaccines which protect against HPV infection. These are called Gardasil and Cervarix. The NHS vaccination programme currently uses Gardasil to vaccinate girls aged 12-17. Girls aged 12-13 will be routinely offered the vaccine in school but it is possible to obtain the vaccine via a local GP surgery.

Women who have received the HPV vaccine will still have to attend the cervical screening as the vaccine protects against only 70% of cervical cancer.

Research indicates that the HPV vaccine could prevent two-thirds of cervical cancers in women aged below 30 by 2025 but only if uptake of the HPV vaccination is at 80%. To date, the UK has achieved this level each year in the national HPV immunisation programme.

Myths

You can’t contract HPV if you use condoms. Wrong!   Practising safe sex through the use of condoms can help reduce the risk of being infected with HPV but it will not completely eradicate the risk as HPV lives on the skin, in and around the whole genital area.

You can’t contract HPV and go on to develop cervical cancer if you have only ever been with one partner. Wrong! Anybody who has ever been sexually active is at risk of contracting HPV. Genital HPV is transmitted primarily by skin-to-skin contact including genital-to-genital contact, anal intercourse and oral sex.

People who have cervical cancer are promiscuous or their partner has cheated on them. Wrong! The time from exposure to the virus, to the development of warts or cervical disease, is highly variable and the virus can remain dormant in some people for long periods of time. Often it is not possible to determine exactly when or from whom the infection originated.

I haven’t had sex for a long time, so now I don’t need to go for my cervical screening. Wrong! The time from exposure to the virus, to the development of warts or cervical disease, is highly variable and the virus can remain dormant in some people for long periods of time.

You can’t contract HPV and go on to develop cervical cancer if you have only ever been sexually active with a woman.Wrong! All women regardless of their sexual preference who are over the age of invitation should have regular cervical screening. Most cervical abnormalities are caused by persistent infection with HPV. As HPV can be transmitted through skin-to-skin contact in the genital area, gay women are at risk of contracting HPV and experiencing abnormal cervical changes and thus, should always attend when invited for cervical screening.

All material on this website is provided for your information only and may not be construed as medical advice or instruction. No action or inaction should be taken based solely on the contents of this information; instead, readers should consult appropriate health professionals on any matter relating to their health and well-being.