Science News

Cervical screening gap

Tue, 9th Dec 2008

Striking figures release this week show that women living in the most deprived areas of England are nearly twice as likely to be diagnosed with cervical cancer than those in affluent areas.  Speaking at the Britain Against Cancer conference, National Cancer Director Mike Richards revealed the results of an analysis of more than 25,000 cases of cervical cancer.

High grade dysplasia (carcinoma in situ) in the uterine cervixIn the most deprived areas, 12 women per 100,000 were diagnosed with cervical cancer between 2000 and 2004, but half that number, just 6 per 100,000 were diagnosed in the most affluent areas.

The figures have come out of the National Cancer Intelligence Network, which was set up to discover just this kind of thing – the patterns and inequalities in cancer across the UK, to highlight how we can improve them in the future.

So what’s causing this?
The researchers think it boils down to screening. We’ve got a fantastic cervical screening programme that saves thousands of lives, but it seems that women in more deprived areas aren’t taking up screening.  There are also higher rates of smoking, and an earlier start to sexual activity in more deprived areas, both of which are risk factors for cervical cancer.

Screening is so important because, in the case of cervical cancer, the test picks up precancerous changes that can be treated, before cancer even develops.  So it turns cervical cancer into a largely preventable disease. In 2006, around a fifth of women in England invited for cervical screening didn’t got, but women in deprived areas are around 40 per cent less likely to attend.

What should be done about it?
This research tells us that the NHS and cancer charities need to do much more to target information about screening and its importance more effectively to low-income areas.  And it could make a real impact in reducing the inequalities in cancer that we still see across the UK.

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