Screening fears blamed as cervical cancer rates among young women soar

A steep rise in rates of cervical cancer among young women is largely down to fears over screening tests, experts are warning.

Cervical cancer rates have risen steeply in recent years. Picture: Jonathan Wood/Getty Images

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 charity said.

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. This includes around 400 cases in the past year among women aged 25 to 29.

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When it comes to rates, there were 12 cases per 100,000 women aged 25 to 29 in 2004-6, rising to 18.5 cases per 100,000 in 2015-17 – a 54 per cent increase.

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 just 70 per cent of women aged 25 to 49 were adequately screened in the past three years – way below the”acceptable” target of 80 per cent. For women aged 50 and over, 76 per cent were screened.

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.