Page last updated at 17:25 GMT, Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Lesbian cancer screening concern

Lesbian women may be getting inaccurate advice

Confusion over risk may mean some lesbian women are not going for cervical cancer screening, say experts.

The national NHS screening programme states that women who have never had sex with a man have a very low risk.

However, research suggests 80% of lesbians have had sex with a man - potentially putting partners at risk of the virus which causes cervical cancer.

The Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care study calls for a revamp of guidance.

There is no evidence that lesbians are at less risk of cervical cancer than their heterosexual counterparts
Hazel Henderson
Public health expert
Most cases of cervical cancer are caused by the Human Papillomavirus (HPV), which is transmitted by sexual contact.

The risk is much higher if the contact is between a male and a female.

But the latest paper finds that most lesbians have had sexual contact with a man, and confirms that HPV can be spread by female-to-female sexual contact too.

Currently, the UK National Health Service Cervical Screening Programme (NHSCSP) states that: "If a woman has never been sexually active with a man then the research evidence shows that her chance of developing cervical cancer is very low indeed.

"In these circumstances a woman might choose to decline the invitation for cervical screening on this occasion".

New advice needed

Hazel Henderson, the author of the latest research and a public health expert based in Croydon, said the advice should be recast to ensure more lesbian women attended screening.

Picking up signs of cervical cancer at the earliest stage is key to ensuring the disease does not progress to a stage at which it becomes more difficult to treat.

She said: "There is no evidence that lesbians are at less risk of cervical cancer than their heterosexual counterparts.

"Lesbians are less likely than heterosexual women to present for cervical screening, as they and their medical advisors sometimes wrongly assume they have a low risk of developing cervical cancer.

"This may result in cervical abnormalities remaining undetected until symptoms appear at which time treatment is less likely to be effective.

"Medical personnel and lesbians need educating in the risk of cervical cancer to ensure there is no longer any ambiguity in the need for cervical screening in lesbians."

Catherine Davison, of the NHS Cancer Screening Programmes, said: "We agree that the biggest risk factor for cervical cancer is non-attendance for screening so we encourage all women aged 25 to 64, irrespective of their sexual orientation, to accept their invitations for cervical screening.

"We accept that lesbian women who have ever had sex with a man are at the same risk of developing cervical cancer as heterosexual women.

"Furthermore, we are always interested in new research and so will monitor any new evidence which purports to show that exclusively lesbian women have the same risk of cervical cancer as heterosexual ones. "

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