Timebomb fear over low cervical cancer test uptake

A cervical cytology slide ready for screening.

A cervical cytology slide ready for screening.

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LOTHIAN is facing a cervical cancer timebomb after it was revealed the number of women attending screenings has reached an all-time low.

Experts have warned thousands of women are putting themselves at risk by missing the routine test because they are too busy or embarrassed.

Fewer than 69 per cent of women showed up to scheduled appointments in the last year – the second lowest uptake in Scotland.

And cancer charities are worried the low turn-out could lead to soaring rates of the disease.

In the Lothian region, more than one in four women – aged between 20 and 60 – are failing to attend a smear test, recommended every three years.

Similarly, one in five women aged over 50, due for examination every five years, did not meet the appointment.

“If uptake for the test continues to decline, we are extremely worried that the devastating impact of a cervical cancer diagnosis will hit more women than ever before,” said Robert Music, chief executive of Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust.

“The major concern is if screening attendance continues to fall, numbers diagnosed will rise dramatically.

“In 1995 uptake in the Lothian region was at 86.7 per cent so we’re seeing a dramatic decline in numbers of women taking the necessary steps to prevent cervical cancer.”

In 2012, 295 Scottish women were diagnosed with cervical cancer and 112 lost their lives to the disease.

National research estimates Lothian would see cases reduce by a fifth if the screening uptake increased to 85 per cent. However, if levels stay the same, the number of women diagnosed with cervical cancer is expected to rise by 27 per cent.

The increasingly busy working and social lives of females are among the factors blamed for the fall, leading some GPs to offer evening and weekend appointments. Politicians have called for “on the spot” tests to be offered during unrelated medical appointments.

Sarah Boyack, Lothian Labour MSP, said: “Given the importance of early detection we need to know why fewer women are coming forward. It’s been suggested that the NHS make spot checks 
available during other medical appointments.”

Jackson Carlaw, health spokesman for Scottish Conservatives, said public attention about the dangers of failing to attend screening tests had worn off since the spike in awareness following the death of Big Brother star Jade Goody.

“There have been some high profile cases over the years, and that should really have helped increase awareness.”

“We need to make sure screening is available at evenings and weekends to encourage women to go.”

Figures show screening uptake has fallen in Scotland by almost 14 per cent in young women aged 25 to 29, and ten per cent for those aged 55 to 59 over the past decade.

Dr Sue Payne, screening 
co-ordinator at NHS Lothian, said the decline in attendance was not unique to Edinburgh and Lothian.

She said: “There are a number of proposed changes to the current programme and we are working with experts at the Scottish Government and other boards to revise current strategies.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said its £30 million Detect Cancer Early project aimed to boost diagnosis rates.

She said: “While 70 per cent of eligible women took up their invitation to be screened for cervical cancer in the last three years, the Scottish Government continues to work with health boards on local initiatives to increase uptake.”

kate.pickles@edinburghnews.com

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