Health

Cervical screening: DIY smear test could be ‘game-changer’

A stock image of a doctor and patientImage copyright Getty Images
Image caption Uptake of cervical screening is at a 20-year low

Women are to be offered the chance to carry out smear tests at home in a bid to cut the rates of cervical cancer.

The pilot scheme will see some women given self-sampling kits in London and north-east England.

It comes as take-up of cervical screening hits a 20-year low, with concerns that embarrassment could make some people miss tests.

The home testing could be a “game-changer”, said charity Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust.

The kits test for human papillomavirus, the virus that causes 99% of cervical cancer cases.

Recent worries about the low rate of women having the test led to the first cervical screening advert to be launched in England earlier this month.

The NHS wants 80% of women between the ages of 25 and 49 to be tested every three years. It wants the same proportion of women aged 50 to 64 to be screened every five years.

But in some areas of England, less than half of eligible women are having the test.

‘User-friendly’

Robert Music, chief executive of Jo’s Trust, said he was “delighted” at the pilot scheme.

He said: “We have been calling for this for a long time and believe this could be a game-changer in regards to access to screening.

“Introduction of self sampling will be of enormous benefit to many people, including survivors of sexual violence and women with a physical disability.

“Other countries are already seeing very positive results of HPV self-sampling, with those who have delayed attending for many years choosing to take the test.

“It is now crucial that this pilot moves forward quickly to ensure we are not left behind in our vision of eliminating cervical cancer.”

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Media captionWhat happens during a smear test?

Women aged 25-64 who are eligible for screening but are at least six months overdue for the test will be invited to take part in the pilot at participating GP surgeries.

London consistently has the lowest cervical screening uptake in England.

King’s College London is working on the pilot with University College London Hospitals Cancer Collaborative. Matejka Rebolj, senior epidemiologist at King’s College London, told the BBC there were several reasons why women did not go for screening.

“There are those who don’t have time to schedule it because they have very busy lives,” she said. “Or it may be their GP surgery is difficult to contact or only offer appointments for several weeks’ time.

“But also, it’s a very intimate procedure, which can be associated with embarrassment and negative feelings, and so some women tend to put it off.”

She said the kit contains a device which is “as user-friendly as it can be”, and that the test takes a matter of seconds.

Some women trialling home-testing in other countries have compared it to using a tampon, she added.

The kit also contains detailed instructions and an envelope so the sample can be sent off safely.

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Image caption Big Brother contestant Jade Goody died on 22 March 2009 after being diagnosed with cervical cancer

Professor Sir Mike Richards, the government’s former cancer director for England, told the Public Accounts Committee the pilot had “great promise”.

He said: “I think if we find it is successful, it might well be able to reach people who aren’t being reached by the current service.

“We need to improve the convenience for patients – better access in terms of out-of-hours services, better access in terms of [clinics] close to where people work – but on top of that we may get to a different segment of the population by offering HPV self-sampling sets through the post.

“That’s what we are beginning to see in other countries. We want to bring that in a very measured way when we have done the full research.”

NHS chiefs announced earlier this week that they were taking the cervical screening system back into their own control, as it has been run by Capita in recent years.

There has been dissatisfaction at how it had been performing.

News of the pilot comes on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the death of reality TV star Jade Goody, who died at the age of 27 after being diagnosed with cervical cancer.

There is already a home-testing scheme for bowel cancer.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-47649690

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