Cervical cancer has the potential to be eliminated thanks to upgraded screening and jabs for children, NHS experts say. The health service has completed its rollout of a new screening method which sees cervical samples first checked for the human papilloma virus (HPV).
HPV causes almost all cases of cervical cancer and can also cause cancers in other genital areas, such as the vagina, vulva, penis and anus. It is a common infection spread through close skin-to-skin contact, usually during sex or oral sex.
Until now, cervical screening samples have been examined and those that showed possible cell changes were then tested for HPV. But this has now being switched around, with cells first tested for HPV infection, and only those that have the virus examined for abnormal cells. This means any sign of infection can be spotted at an earlier stage before cancer goes on to develop.
Research has also shown that the new method picks up far more cases of pre-cancerous lesions than the old one.
There are 2,500 new cases of cervical cancer in England every year. A quarter of these could be prevented with the new method of testing. Alongside the new screening, all 12 and 13-year-olds in school year eight are offered a vaccine to protect against HPV.
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Currently, the national NHS HPV vaccination programme uses the vaccine Gardasil, which protects against four types of HPV that cause most cases of cancer.
Last year, researchers said cervical cancer could be effectively eliminated in most countries around the world by the end of the 21st Century thanks to the jab and improved screening.
Professor Peter Johnson, the NHS’s national clinical director for cancer, said the new HPV cervical screening test “will save lives”. He added: “It is vitally important that all eligible people attend for their screening appointments, to keep themselves safe.
“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.”
Prof Johnson added that 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.”
71.9 per cent of eligible women aged 25 to 64 were screened for cervical cancer in 2018/19
Robert Music, chief executive of 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.”
In 2018/19, 71.9 per cent of eligible women aged 25 to 64 were screened for cervical cancer, with experts expressing concern about low uptake among young women.
When it came to the jab, 83.8 per cent of girls completed the two-dose HPV vaccination course in 2017/18, up from 83.1 per cent the previous year. The vaccination became free to boys on the NHS in September 2019.