Cervical cancer screening age to stay at 25

In collaboration with the Press Association

The Department of Health has ruled out lowering the age of cervical cancer screening from 25 to 20 after experts reported that screening women under 25 could do more harm than good.

Women in England are invited for smear tests every three years between the ages of 25 and 50 and every five years until they are 64. But Scotland and Wales begin their programmes at 20.

Some groups have called for the lower age limit to be changed after Jade Goody's battle with cervical cancer highlighted the fact that the disease can affect women in their 20s.

 

But the independent Advisory Committee on Cervical Screening (ACCS) has now reviewed the scientific evidence and, after consulting leading experts and cancer charities, has concluded the age limit should not be lowered.

The ACCS noted that just 2.4 per cent of all cases of cervical cancer occur in women under 25 and that there has been no increase in the incidence of cervical cancer since the screening age limit was raised to 25 in England.

The committee also noted that a high proportion of under-25s have a 'false positive' result, which means that their test results suggest they may have cervical cancer when they do not.

As a result, many young women would be caused the anxiety of having to undergo further investigation before being given the all-clear.

Although the committee has advised against lowering the screening age limit, it expressed concern that young women with possible cervical cancer symptoms do not always receive appropriate advice from their GP.

In light of this, the ACCS has recommended an awareness campaign for GPs and practice nurses and new guidance on the management of young women with gynaecological symptoms.

Committee chairman Professor Henry Kitchener said: "The committee was unanimous in its decision not to lower the screening age below 25. This decision was taken because scientific evidence shows that screening women in this age group can do more harm than good.

"But we are concerned that young women with gynaecological symptoms are not always being given the right advice from their GPs and we will ask the Department of Health to take action."

Health minister Ann Keen said that the government's policy on cervical cancer screening is in the best interests of young women.

"[The ACCS] have concluded that the screening age should not be lowered but have recommended that we do more work around the treatment of symptomatic patients. I fully support this conclusion and look forward to beginning this important new work to ensure women with cervical cancer are diagnosed at the earliest possible opportunity," she said.

"There has been a big public debate about this issue and a great deal of publicity about the causes and symptoms of cervical cancer. Together we can build on this work to help even more women across the country to take steps to prevent the disease and to identify symptoms early and save lives."

Sarah Woolnough, Cancer Research UK's head of policy, said: "The tragic story of Jade Goody's death from cervical cancer has raised awareness of this disease in a way public health campaigns rarely manage to achieve. We know that thousands of young women have now booked appointments for cervical screening having previously ignored their invitations. As a result lives will be saved and this is Jade's legacy.

"We know the evidence shows that screening women in their teens and early 20s is less effective than screening older women. This is because changes to the cells in the cervix are more common in younger women and often return to normal without needing treatment.

"But of course we remain concerned about the number of women under 25 who have symptoms, so it's crucial that young women who experience bleeding between periods, pain during sex or an unusual discharge talk to their GP and have the appropriate tests.

"Most cases of cervical cancer are preventable and we urge all women to attend their screening appointment when invited."