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Cervical cancer screening rates have dropped to a 21-year low, worrying statistics have revealed today. 

NHS Digital data shows just 75.5 per cent of English women have had the cancer-detecting test in the last five years. The figure is just 71.4 per cent when it takes into account young women who should be seen every three years.

This is the lowest it has been since recording started in 1997, when 82 per cent of women had been screened in the same time frame.

Charities have said the drop is ‘disappointing’ and warned more women will die of cervical cancer if the number taking up the free NHS smear tests doesn’t rise.

The dip in figures comes just weeks after it was revealed nearly 50,000 women missed out on their smear test invites and results because of a huge admin error.

The proportion of eligible women who have been screened for early signs of cervical cancer within the past five years has fallen from 82 per cent in 1997 – when records began – to 75.5 per cent in 2018. Experts called the drop ‘frustating’, ‘worrying’ and ‘disappointing’

NHS Digital data shows just 75.5 per cent of English women have had the cancer-detecting test in the last five years. The figure is just 71.4 per cent when it takes into account young women who should be seen every three years

NHS Digital data shows just 75.5 per cent of English women have had the cancer-detecting test in the last five years. The figure is just 71.4 per cent when it takes into account young women who should be seen every three years

The NHS figures showed the proportion of women being screened has fallen for the fourth consecutive year.  

The charity Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust said the vital testing is becoming harder to access because of a crumbling health service, leaving women ‘let down’.

It calculated that of the 4.46million women aged 25 to 64 who were invited for a test during 2017/18, 1.28million women did not take up their invitation.

‘Today’s statistics are highly frustrating,’ said chief executive Robert Music. ‘And, coupled with rising cervical cancer diagnoses, [they are] an enormous worry.

‘At a time when we should be making screening easier to attend it is getting harder and harder to access.

‘Many women struggle to get screening appointments at their GP, access through sexual health is declining and there is limited provision for those requiring extra support.

‘We have a highly effective programme, yet it is being delivered on an IT system which is ready to collapse.’

Mr Music’s criticism of NHS infrastructure comes in the same month it was revealed the private company in charge of sending out smear test reminder letters failed to send them to tens of thousands of women.


 A smear test detects abnormal cells on the cervix, which is the entrance to the uterus from the vagina.

Removing these cells can prevent cervical cancer.

Most test results come back clear, however, one in 20 women show abnormal changes to the cells of their cervix. 

Being screened regularly means any abnormal changes in the cells of the cervix can be identified at an early stage and, if necessary, destroyed to stop cancer developing.

Cervical cancer most commonly affects sexually-active women aged between 30 and 45.

In the UK, the NHS Cervical Screening Programme invites women aged 25-to-49 for a smear every three years, those aged 50 to 60 every five years, and women over 65 if they have not been screened since 50 or have previously had abnormal results.

Women must be registered with a GP to be invited for a test.

In the US, tests start when women turn 21 and are carried out every three years until they reach 65.

Changes in cervical cells are often caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV), which can be transmitted during sex. 

Earlier this month it was revealed Capita staff failed to send letters reminding 43,000 women to attend screenings, and didn’t send results letters to a further 4,300.

Experts warned lives had been put at risk by the error and called on the NHS to cut ties with Capita, which has made blunders in the past.   

Women aged 25 to 49 are invited for screening every three years while those aged 50 to 64 are routinely recalled every five years.

‘It’s disappointing to see the fall in the number of people attending cervical cancer screening in recent years,’ said Cancer Research UK’s Karis Betts.

‘We already know it saves 2,000 lives each year by detecting changes in the cervix before they develop into cancer. 

‘Cervical screening provides lasting protection against the disease so we would encourage people to think about taking part when they receive their invitation.’ 

Just under seven in 10 (69.1 per cent) younger women attended in the appropriate time frame while 76.2 per cent of older women took up their screening invite.

The biggest drops were among the youngest and oldest age groups. Coverage for women in their late 20s dropped from 62.1 per cent to 61.1 per cent in a year.

And 68.8 per cent of women in their 60s were screened, compared to 69.7 per cent last year. 

While no local authorities match the target of 80 per cent of women being screened, London has the lowest rate, with just 64.7 per cent coverage.

The borough of Kensington and Chelsea is the worst in the country – only 51.6 per cent of women living there have smear tests.

Cervical cancer affects around 3,200 women every year in the UK, and around 60 per cent of them will survive for 10 years or more after their diagnosis.

The cervix is the passage between the womb and the vagina, and symptoms of the cancer include pelvic pain, abnormal vaginal bleeding, and needing to urinate more often than normal. 

The majority of cases are caused by the common HPV virus, which is transmitted through sex. 

Mr Music added: ‘We are being left behind by countries such as Australia, where advancements including HPV self-sampling are now part of the programme and where elimination of cervical cancer is truly on the horizon.

‘We cannot sit back and let cervical screening coverage continue to plummet or diagnoses of this often preventable cancer will rise and more mothers, daughters, sisters and friends will be lost.’ 

And Ms Betts said: ‘There are a number of reasons why people may choose not to go for cervical screening.

‘Some women don’t know screening is for people without symptoms and there can also be practical or cultural reasons why they might find it difficult to make an appointment. 

‘We need to fully understand the reasons behind today’s figures to make screening as accessible and effective as possible.’


The NHS was this month rocked by a cancer screening blunder as almost 50,000 women were not sent letters inviting them for a smear test.

Health leaders warned ‘lives are at risk’ because of the error by the private firm Capita, which was branded ‘shambolic’ and ‘incompetent’.

The company – contracted to produce and send invitation letters to women eligible for the screening programme – blamed human error for the failure and said disciplinary measures would be taken. 

The error meant 43,000 letters inviting female patients for a smear test or giving them a reminder were not sent between January and June 2018. A further 4,500 were regarding their cervical cancer screening results.

The British Medical Association, the GPs’ trade union, wrote to NHS England about its ‘extreme concern’ that so many women did not get the letters because of the ‘gross’ error by Capita.

‘This is an incredibly serious situation,’ said the association’s Dr Richard Vautrey. He added it was ‘appalling that patients may now be at risk’ of cervical cancer and said hundreds of women are likely to be ‘extremely anxious’ over the news. 

It came after the NHS was engulfed in a similar scandal in May, which saw 450,000 women miss life-saving breast cancer screening scans because of a ‘colossal’ IT failure.  


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