One in four women miss 'smear test'
At least one in every four women invited for cervical cancer screening in England last year failed to attend, latest figures show.
Out of about 4.2 million women invited, just over three million attended. NHS Digital said it was the second consecutive year that screening rates had fallen.
Attendance rates in Wales and Scotland have also gone down.
Charities said women were putting their lives at risk by not getting screened.
A cervical screening test (previously called a smear test) is not a test for cancer.
It checks for any abnormal cells on the cervix (neck of the womb) that might become cancer.
Detecting and removing these cells can prevent cervical cancer.
The test takes about five minutes.
Some women find the procedure uncomfortable or embarrassing.
Women are invited for regular screening, aged:
- 25-49: every three years
- 50-64: every five years
In the 12 months up to March 2016, 72.7% of those eligible for screening actually attended.
This was down from 73.5% the year before and 75.7% in March 2011.
The lowest uptake was in London (66.6%), and the highest was in the East Midlands (75.9%).
Women in their early 50s had the highest attendance rates - over 80%.
Women in their late 20s had the lowest - just over 60%.
The annual figures include 500,000 women tested without having been invited by the programme.
These women are screened because they have symptoms or other health problems.
Experts say it is unclear why women are not attending.
They are sent invitations through the post, along with reminder letters if they fail to attend.
Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust chief executive Robert Music, said: "The new data makes bleak reading.
"If we do not start to immediately reverse declining coverage, then tragically we will see more diagnoses and lives lost from what is a largely preventable disease."
He said the government should consider introducing the option of self-screening.
"We are calling for urgent action to explore initiatives including self-testing, increasing provision of screening in sexual health clinics and allowing women to attend screening at GP surgeries other than the one they are registered with," Mr Music said.
Public Health England director of screening Dr Anne Mackie said: "Cervical screening prevents thousands of cancers, so it is important women take up the opportunity to be screened.
"We are supporting local services to encourage more women to attend screening through clearer information and tailored reminders.
"We have also asked the independent expert Screening Committee to consider the merits of self-testing for women who are not taking the test."
Health minister David Mowat said: "Cervical screening saves around 4,500 lives a year in England and I urge all women to decide to attend screening appointments when invited."