‘Steep rise’ in cervical cancer rates among young women

There has been a steep rise in rates of cervical cancer among women aged 25 to 29, a charity has warned.

Cancer Research UK said new figures show a decade-long lack of progress in tackling the disease, with worryingly low numbers of women attending screening.

While the death of TV star Jade Goody in 2009 boosted the numbers of young women seeking screening, that effect has now long worn off.

The latest figures show that 3,192 women on average are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year, with most of these in younger age groups, Cancer Research UK said.

It said around 400 cases a year are in women aged 25 to 29.

When it comes to rates, there were 12 cases per 100,000 women aged 25 to 29 in 2004/06, rising to 18.5 cases per 100,000 in 2015/17 – a 54% jump.

Jade Goody
The death of TV star Jade Goody in 2009 boosted the numbers of young women seeking screening (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

In the long run, experts believe the combined effect of better screening and the success of the human papillomavirus (HPV) jab given to schoolchildren – which protects against cervical cancer – will lead to the disease being virtually eliminated.

But in the meantime, there is concern about dropping screening rates, with surveys showing that young women feel embarrassed or worry the tests will hurt.

Figures published by Public Health England (PHE) earlier this month show that just 70.2% of women aged 25 to 49 were adequately screened in the last three years – way below the 80% regarded as acceptable by the NHS.

For women aged 50 and over, 76.4% were screened – also below the 80% level deemed acceptable.

The data also showed that fewer than half (48.3%) of women receive the results of their cervical screening tests within two weeks – way below the NHS target of more than 98%.

Overall, cervical cancer rates in the UK among all ages fell from 18.8 per 100,000 in 1985/1987 to 9.4 cases per 100,000 in 2004/2006.

But the rise among young women is worrying experts.

Cancer Research UK’s chief executive Michelle Mitchell said: “These figures show how research has protected thousands of people in the UK from cervical cancer, but they also highlight a worrying trend that shows progress is stalling and stagnating, which could undermine this success.

“Cervical cancer is one of the few cancers that can be prevented through screening, and now the disease is far less common in the UK.

“But these life-saving programmes can’t help people they can’t reach, which is why it’s important for us to continue to raise awareness and carry out research into how screening could be improved for hard-to-reach groups.”

Cervical cancer is caused by the HPV virus. While highly effective, the HPV jab does not protect against all strains of HPV, so screening is offered alongside it.

Gem Sofianos
Gem Sofianos (Handout/PA)

Gem Sofianos, a 32-year-old from London, was diagnosed with the disease in 2015 when she was 28. She said: “I was young and healthy and hadn’t experienced any symptoms, so to be told I had cervical cancer took me completely by surprise.

“My mum accompanied me to the appointment and we just stared at each other in shocked silence. It was a lot to take in.”

Robert Music, chief executive of Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, said that while rates are rising among young women, data for England showed an annual decline in the number of diagnoses in this age group.

He said the increasing rates were in part due to improved tests, meaning cancers are picked up at an even earlier age.

“The HPV vaccination will hopefully mean rates in young women start to decrease significantly over the coming years,” he added.

“While we know we can eliminate cervical cancer one day, we have a long way to go.

“Improving screening attendance and adopting innovations to make the programme even more effective must be a priority, especially among age groups who have not been offered the vaccine.”

Professor Peter Johnson, NHS clinical director for cancer, said: “More and more young women and men are being vaccinated against HPV, the most recent figures show an increase in people getting screened and most importantly, the number of people infected with the cancer-causing viruses has fallen dramatically.

“Together with the new way of cervical screening which has now been rolled out across England as part of our Long Term Plan, cervical cancer has the potential to become a thing of the past.

“It is vital that people go for their screening test, even if they are completely well – it could be a life-saver.”

Women between the ages of 25 and 64 are invited for regular cervical screening under the NHS Cervical Screening Programme.

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