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Goody sparks row over screening

17 February 09 10:28 GMT

A leading sexual health charity says the NHS should lower the age for first smear tests in England to pick up more cases in younger women.

The high-profile case of Jade Goody shows the disease is a potential threat and Marie Stopes International says women should be screened from 20 years.

This already happens in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

But the NHS cancer screening services said there was good evidence for raising the screening age to 25.

Until 2003, the NHS had been inviting women for testing at age 20. But the age was raised to 25 after research suggested a negative effect.

This is because some experts say although women in their early 20s may have detectable changes in their cells, these are mostly natural and clear up on their own. Also, treating this can lead to complications in later life, such as difficulties carrying a baby in the womb during pregnancy.

'Goody effect'

The reality TV star, 27, was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2008. Last week, she was told by doctors the cancer has spread and she has only months left to live.

Director of the NHS Cancer Screening Programmes Julietta Patnick said: "It would be a shame if the Jade Goody effect were to be deflected on to an argument about screening for the under 25s.

"Abnormalities in the cervix are very common in that age group and we think screening at that age would lead to more harm than good."

But MSI says there is a good case to screen younger women. Many countries already do this, including the rest of the UK.

Liz Davies, MSI Director of UK and Europe, said: "The recent high profile case of Jade Goody, who is battling the most virulent form of cervical cancer at just age 27 shows that this disease, whilst extremely rare among women under 30 is nevertheless a potential threat.

"Certain lifestyle choices which are increasingly common among younger women and teenage girls, such as smoking and having unprotected sex from an early age, can increase the risk of developing cervical abnormalities.

"Bringing screening for English women into line with the rest of the UK, can only prove to be a beneficial move."

She said the recent introduction of a cervical cancer vaccination programme - a jab against the HPV viruses linked to the cancer - makes the case for doing this ever more pressing.

"The vaccination only protects against certain forms of the HPV virus, which is the major cause of cervical cancer.

"Our fear is that young girls who are being vaccinated now may think they are completely protected, which simply is not the case. It makes sense to start them thinking about their cervical health as early as possible, and universal screening from the age of 20 is a key strategy for achieving that."

Experts agree that women under 25 who are concerned about their risk of developing cervical cancer or sexual health should contact their GP or Genito-Urinary Medicine clinic.

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