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Cervical cancer in the UK news: A look back over 2018, by Dr Rebecca Richards

Updated: Feb 1, 2019

In this week’s blog, I’ve rounded up the most highly publicised cervical cancer UK news articles of 2018. These include the falling rates of cervical cancer screening to a 20-year low, the celebrity endorsement of the #SmearforSmear campaign, the approval for the extension of the HPV vaccination programme to boys and the IT system blunder which meant over 40,000 women failed to received their screening letters.

January 2018

'The Jade Goody effect has long gone': Cervical cancer tests hit 20-year low as charity warns 1.2 million women are risking their lives.

Following a report from Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, The Mirror (and many other news outlets) published an article reflecting the fall in cervical screening coverage, across every age group, to its lowest in 20 years at 72% in the UK. This is short of the 80% target for screening. Additionally, 44% of local authorities and 60% of Clinical Commissioning Groups had not undertaken any activities to increase screening attendance in the past two years. Jo’s Trust had called for an increase in accessibility for screening, including the ability for women to attend screenings at GP’s or sexual health services close to work, and the availability of self-testing kits.

February 2018

#SmearforSmear: Women including Tamara Ecclestone and Rebekah Vardy post smeared lipstick selfies as they throw their support behind cancer campaign.

The 22-28th January was Cervical Cancer Prevention week in 2018, a dedicated week of campaigning, run by Public Health England in partnership with Jo’s Trust, to raise awareness of cervical cancer symptoms, the HPV vaccine and smear tests. During this week, Jo’s Trust runs the annual #SmearforSmear campaign, where the public are encouraged to post a selfie with smeared lipstick on social media to raise awareness of the importance of screening. One in three women under 29 don’t attend screening, so social media is a good way to target this group of women.

In February, The Mail Online reported that celebrities including model and socialite Tamara Ecclestone, former I'm A Celebrity! star Rebekah Vardy and ex-Emmerdale actress Gaynor Faye had joined in to support the campaign. Celebrity endorsement of the campaign was great news and hopefully we’ll see more celebrity ‘smear selfies’ in 2019 as the campaign continues to grow.

June 2018

HPV vaccine has led to 'significant drop' in cervical cancer rates among UK women, study reveals.

In June, The Independent wrote about the results of a study which reported the significant reduction in the number of young women carrying the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), which causes cervical cancer, due to the HPV vaccine. According to data from Public Health England, HPV infections decreased by 86% in English women aged 16-21 who were eligible for the vaccine as teenagers between 2010 and 2016. The data further revealed that there were reductions across five high-risk types in total, which cause around 90% of cervical cancer cases. This study reinforces the importance of the HPV vaccine in the fight to eliminate cervical cancer.

July 2018

Teenage boys to be vaccinated against cancer-causing HPV.

The Guardian, and many other news outlets, reported the announcement made by public health minister Steve Brine on the 24th July 2018 that boys aged between 12 and 13 in England will be given the HPV vaccination to protect them against HPV-related cancers next year. The Guardian quoted Dr Mary Ramsay, the head of immunisations at Public Health England, “This extended programme offers us the opportunity to make HPV-related diseases a thing of the past and build on the success of the girls’ programme, which has already reduced the prevalence of HPV 16 and 17, the main cancer-causing types, by over 80%”.

October 2018

Australia set to 'eliminate' cervical cancer by 2028.

The publication of a statistical modelling study in The Lancet Public Health journal by researchers in Sydney was highly publicised in October 2018. CNN News reported that this study suggested that Australia is set to be the first country to effectively ‘eliminate’ cervical cancer due to its national vaccination and screening programs. Australia was one of first countries to introduce a national HPV vaccination programme for girls in 2007 and extended it to boys in 2013. Currently, Australia reports seven cases of cervical cancer per 100,000 women, according to the study. The goal is to see a decline in the disease to one new case per 100,000 per year by 2034, which means the cancer would effectively be ‘eliminated’.

November 2018

Thousands caught in 'appalling' cervical cancer screening blunder.

In November 2018, the BBC reported that more than 40,000 women in England hadn’t received information regarding their cervical cancer screening following a failure to send out letters by the NHS between January and June earlier this year. The BBC reported that around 4,000 of the letters were test results and between 150 to 200 of these were to inform women of abnormal results. NHS England are responsible for checking that these women have been followed up properly with further testing and the BBC reported that so far, nearly half of this group has been contacted. All women who did not received an invite letter or reminder have also been written to. The NHS said no harm had been caused, however Dr Richard Vautry, of the British Medical Association said the situation was “frankly appalling”, and that Capita’s (the provider of the service for the NHS) handling of the service had been, “nothing short of shambolic”.

2018 has been a year of highs and lows but the extension of the HPV programme to boys was a significant step in the right direction. Hopefully in 2019, we should see more focus on stopping the falling screening rates, starting with the awareness-raising cervical cancer campaign planned by Public Health England for early next year.

[All views and opinions are my own].

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