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A third of women not attending cervical screening appointments

Thousands of women at risk of cervical cancer as smear test uptake in England has fallen to a record low

New figures by NHS England revealed that only 68.7 per cent of women aged 25 to 64 in England came forward for cervical screening last year, down from 69.9% in 2022, 70.2% in 2021 and 72.2% in 2020.  

Screening helps prevent cervical cancer by using a highly effective test to check for HPV, which is found in over 99% of all cervical cancers and may cause abnormal cells to develop in the cervix. These abnormal cells can, over time, turn into cancer if left untreated. Around 3,200 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year in the UK and the disease claims 850 lives annually.

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The NHS is now ramping up efforts to vaccinate women against HPV in England, as well as encouraging more to come forward for cervical screening.

‘Getting the human papilloma virus  (HPV) vaccination and attending screening is the best way of preventing cervical cancer, which is why it’s important that you book an appointment when invited,’ said Dr Kiren Collison, a GP and NHS England’s Deputy Medical Director for Primary Care.

‘I’d also encourage anyone who has previously received an invitation and may have been unable to attend at the time, not to wait until you get another invitation before contacting your GP practice. You can still book a cervical screening appointment even if you were invited weeks, months or years ago,’ she said.

This decline also comes just a week after NHS England pledged to eliminate cervical cancer by 2040. This ambition would be met if there were fewer than four cases of cervical cancer per 100,000 women in England, in line with the World Health Organization's elimination definition. However, the rate currently stands at 9.5 cases per 100,0000 women, equating to around 2,600 cases in England annually.

NHS England has committed to support health and care professionals ‘to identify those who most need the HPV vaccine through targeted outreach and offering jabs in more convenient settings,’ but acknowledged that it depends on women coming forward for the test.

‘We know that it’s possible for the NHS to eliminate cervical cancer within the next two decades, but it relies on millions of people continuing to come forward for screening and vaccinations every year,’ said Steve Russell, national director for vaccinations and screening for NHS England.

‘The NHS is doing everything we can to achieve our ambition by making it as easy as possible to make appointments, with the latest figures showing the NHS arranged cervical screening for over 3.4 million women last year,’ he said.