Calls to expand age limit on cervical cancer screening

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Health experts have called for the extension of cervical screening programmes  in the UK to include women over 65.

Research from Keele University found that on average 20% of the 3,121 new cases diagnosed each year, and 50% of deaths from cervical cancer, were in women aged 65 and over – the age at which the screening programme in the UK currently ends. This is compared to 64 new diagnoses under the age of 25, accounting for just 2% of all diagnoses.

The research also suggests that the cancer is perceived as being a young woman’s disease, with the screening cut-off at 64 implicitly suggesting to older women that they are no longer at risk. Figures show that uptake of cervical screening is declining after 50, yet breast screening uptake actually increases from 50 to 64.

A separate survey completed by Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust found that a lack of knowledge about the cause of cervical cancer and who can be affected seems to be contributing to women aged 50-64 not attending cervical screening. Also, some 60% of women aged 50-64 do not know that the human papillomavirus causes cervical cancer and many failed to link historic sexual activity as a threat to the virus laying dormant and developing into the disease later in life.

Sue Sherman of Keele University and lead author of the first report, said “we need to change the perception of cervical cancer so it is thought of just like breast and bowel cancer – that it can affect women well into old age”.

Robert Music, chief executive at Jo’s Trust, noted that responses from women questioned in its research were worrying “with some citing they had been ‘celibate’ for several years and therefore did not consider themselves to be at risk.  We must remind all women that HPV is very common and can lie dormant for very long periods of time, and that the best way of reducing one’s risk of cervical cancer is to attend screening promptly whilst eligible”.