To promote Cervical Screening Awareness Week (June 12-18), the charity behind the #SmearforSmear campaign has highlighted the alarming number of women in the UK who simply do not attend the free screening offered by the NHS.
According to Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust, almost half a million women in the UK under 30 did not attend their smear test last year, with one in four saying they were too embarrassed. One in four women aged 60-64 also failed to take up the screening offered.
Now, scientists at Duke University, North Carolina have developed a new device that will hopefully make testing less uncomfortable for women, cheaper and more readily available.
Rather than having to undergo the traditional, often unpleasant experience of a metal speculum examination, women may soon be able to experience the 'pocket colposcope' – a slender, handheld wand the size of a tampon, with lights and a camera at one end.
The simplicity of the device, which can be connected to a laptop or a smart phone, could also mean that women can self-screen and transmit the information, with the ultimate aim of removing the need for a doctor at any point in the process, shifting the task to midwives, community health workers and women themselves.
Cervical cancer remains the fourth most common cancer in women, with more than 500,000 new cases occurring worldwide each year. Screening and diagnostic programmes have seen mortality rates in countries such as the US drop significantly in the past four decades, but the UK lags years behind progress in other European countries such as France, Italy and Scandinavia to combat the disease.
High survival rate
If caught early, cervical cancer has one of the highest survival rates of all cancers, with 75 per cent of cervical cancers prevented by smear tests. But Nimmi Ramanujam, professor of biomedical engineering and lead researcher on the Duke study, whose paper was published in the journal PLOS One, said this rate should be 100 per cent considering the tools available to treat it.
Women not receiving screening or not following up a positive screening means the disease continues to kill three women every day in the UK.
Coinciding with the positive news from Duke, a very worrying study has been published by Cambridge University, University College London and Public Health England reporting that too many GPs are not picking up cancers early enough.
GPs missing cancers
The report says that seven in 10 people whose illness is picked up in casualty were not diagnosed by their GP, with an estimated 32,000 cancer patients having visited their local surgery three times without the disease being diagnosed. And it's women and younger patients who are more likely to have their symptoms overlooked, even for common cancers such as cervical cancer.
Although the study did not speculate why GPs are failing to spot cancer in their patients, we do know that if we matched the European average on treating cancer, some 10,000 lives could be saved every year.
- Every day in the UK 9 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer
- 3 women lose their lives from the disease every day
- Cervical cancer is the most common cancer in women aged 35
- 75% of cervical cancers are prevented by cervical screening (smear tests)
- 1 in 4 women do not attend this potentially life-saving test
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