Page last updated at 13:48 GMT, Wednesday, 24 June 2009 14:48 UK

Smear test age limit to remain 25

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

The screening age for cervical cancer will not be lowered from 25 in England, the government says.

Ministers rejected calls for the move after asking its screening advisers to review policy.

Health Minister Ann Keen said lowering the age could cause too many false positive results leading to unnecessary and potentially harmful treatment.

But campaigners said it was disappointing as the death of Jade Goody showed young people were at risk.

The government came under pressure to lower the age after the death of the 27-year-old reality TV star earlier this year.

Women who are screened under the age of 25 are more likely to have a false positive, one in three tests come back abnormal, compared to one in 14 for older women
This is because when women start having sex the introduction of the HPV virus can prompt abnormal results that would quite likely correct themselves over time
Not all abnormal results will lead to treatment, but many do and this can be potentially harmful
The treatment involves cutting part of the cervix away, leaving it shortened and weakened and more likely to open during pregnancy

The rest of the UK offers screening at the age of 20, leading to suggestions of a postcode lottery.

But ministers said they were sure they had made the right decision after asking the Advisory Committee on Cervical Screening to assess the evidence.

The committee concluded 25 was the tipping point at which the benefits of screening outweighed the risks.

One in three women under the age 25 will have an abnormal result compared with one in 14 for older women, meaning there would be many false positives.

The experts warned this would lead to unnecessary treatment which then increases the risk of premature births in the future.

Ms Keen said: "In the past few months I have met with a number of young women who have cervical cancer.

"I have listened carefully and I am determined to make sure that our policy is in their best interests."

But she said there would be an awareness campaign to encourage GPs and nurses to spot the signs of cancer at an earlier stage, particularly in young women.

There will also be a public campaign focusing on encouraging women, particularly those in the under 35 age group, to attend regular three-year screening.

On top of this, there will be an audit of all young people who are diagnosed with the disease to see what symptoms they developed and assess why it was not dealt with at an earlier stage.


But Liz Davies, from Marie Stopes International, said the government should have lowered the screening age.

"The Department of Health concerns itself with the provision of standardised high-quality care for all, and with promoting a culture of prevention rather than cure.

"It is therefore nonsensical that English women have to wait for a preventative cancer screening service that is provided five years earlier to women living in the rest of the UK."

Robert Music, director of Jo's Trust, the cervical cancer charity, added: "We have always said this is about choice and there is a real inequality being perpetuated through this decision."

And the stance of the campaigners was supported by Jack Tweed, Ms Goody's widower.

He said: "It is a great shame the government has decided not to change the age.

"Anything that saves a single life is worthwhile, I know because I still miss Jade every day."

The screening age was only increased from 20 to 25 in 2003 as it was felt it did more harm than good in younger women.

The move was later backed by the World Health Organization.

But the government agreed to review the policy after the attention given to the issue following Ms Goody's diagnosis and new evidence which has emerged.

Last year researchers noted that the incidence of high-grade pre-cancerous lesions was increasing in younger women.

However, only 50 women under 25 are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year on average - just over 2% of the total.

Cervical screening is estimated to save around 4,500 lives a year.

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