Page last updated at 11:59 GMT, Friday, 13 March 2009

Smear test age 'to be reviewed'

Cervical screening test
Cervical screening saves around 4,500 lives every year

Ministers are to review the age at which women in England are screened for cervical cancer.

An expert panel will report later this year on whether women aged 20-24 should be offered smear tests, as they are in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

In 2003, screening in England was moved to start at 25 as it was felt it did more harm than good in younger women.

There have been calls to lower screening age following the high-profile case of Jade Goody.

The reality TV star, 27, who was diagnosed with cervical cancer last year, has been told she has just weeks to live after the disease spread to her liver, groin and bowel.

It is important that we look at any emerging evidence so that we can be sure, and can assure young women, that this is still what is best for their health
Professor Mike Richards, National Cancer Director

Doctors have reported more women asking for smear tests after her diagnosis.

Under-25s have been excluded from such checks in England since 2003 because of relatively few cancers being detected, and concerns about unnecessary and invasive treatments.

This is not the first time the screening age in England has been questioned since the recommendations changed.

In 2008, UK researchers found the incidence of high-grade pre-cancerous lesions was increasing in younger women, prompting them to call for screening to be offered from the age of 20.


The expert panel will review the latest evidence to determine whether women under 25 should be eligible for smear tests, health minister Ann Keen said.

They will look at trends in cervical cancer incidence in young women as well as the potential impact of HPV vaccination, which protects against a virus known to cause the majority of cervical cancers, on future rates of the disease.

Options being considered are whether asymptomatic women under 25 years should have formal access to cervical screening or through an "informed choice" scheme.

"Cervical screening saves around 4,500 lives every year and we want to ensure that our programme remains in the best interests of young women," Ann Keen said.

"Experts will review the latest available evidence in this area as well as consider how we can increase awareness of the importance of screening and encourage more women to decide to take up this important service."

Professor Mike Richards, National Cancer Director, added: "Currently in England we start to screen at 25 years, which is in line with international World Health Organization recommendations and is supported by leading scientists in this country.

"However it is important that we look at any emerging evidence so that we can be sure, and can assure young women, that this is still what is best for their health."

Emily James, spokeswoman for Marie Stopes International, said they wanted to see cervical screening standardised across the NHS in the UK.

"Cervical cancer, whilst rare for women under the age of 30, is a potential threat.

"Early detection and treatment can prevent around 75% of cervical cancers developing in women, so an about-turn from the government to offer screening from a younger age could save lives."

Dr Lesley Walker, Cancer Research UK's director of cancer information, said: "It's vital to consider any evidence that might suggest it's more appropriate to screen women under the age of 25 in England.

"The complexities of running a national screening programme mean that there are always hard decisions to make.

"So the evidence needs to be constantly reviewed, and acted upon, as it emerges."

Robert Music, director of Jo's Trust, the cervical cancer charity said: "It is vital that the review goes as wide and deep as possible to ensure many people are able to offer input."

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