Cervical cancer is in the news here in the UK as reality TV star Jade Goody has been diagnosed with the diease. And this week researchers at King's College London have published a paper showing that rates of cervical cancer are higher in poorer areas than in richer ones - results hat have important implications for targeting cancer awareness and screening campaigns.
Led by Dr Laura Currin, the researchers analysed data from over 2,200 women diagnosed with cervical cancer between 2001 and 2005 in London, Kent, Surrey and Sussex. They then looked for any patterns linking the disease to social deprivation, and related factors such as smoking, teen pregnancy and cervical screening.
The team found that the rates of cervical cancer varied dramatically across South-East England, and in some neighbouring areas there was up to a three-fold difference in rates, with much higher rates of cervical cancer in poorer areas.
There's a number of reasons for this. Firstly, smoking is linked to increased risk of cervical cancer, and rates of smoking are higher in poorer areas than richer ones. Also, we know that women in poorer areas are less likely to take up cervical screening, which saves thousands of lives every year in the UK. Last year alone, hundreds of thousands of women across the country failed to take up their invitation for screening.
The key thing about cervical cancer is that it's a highly preventable disease. The national screening programme of smear tests picks up pre-cancerous changes, so women can be treated before the disease has even developed. These new results tell us that healthcare providers and health campaigners need to focus their efforts more firmly on reaching women in poorer areas of the UK, encouraging them to be aware of symptoms such as bleeding between periods, and going for screening when they are invited.
And although Jade's story is a terrible personal tragedy for her and her family - as it is for any family affected by cancer - she has done a lot to raise awareness of cervical cancer among younger women. Cancer Research UK have seen a big jump in the number of people seeking information about cervical cancer symptoms and screening on their CancerHelp UK website and Science Update Blog. Hopefully we'll see a jump in the number of women going for screening, particularly from poorer areas, which could lead to lives saved in the future.