Scots NHS to improve cervical cancer screening with HPV test

Image source, SNS
Image caption, Screening through smear tests saves thousands of lives every year

Scotland's NHS is to introduce a more accurate test for cervical cancer which could help patients get treated sooner.

Under the plans, women who are offered a routine smear test for cervical cancer will also be checked for Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), which has been strongly linked to the cancer.

The new test is expected to be available to patients by 2019-20.

Health Secretary Shona Robison said it would help make sure cervical cancer cases are caught and treated quickly.

Cervical cancer is the most common cancer in women under the age of 35, and incidence has increased 22% over the last decade.

Each year, more than 3,200 women are diagnosed across the UK, and more than 890 lose their lives.

Treatment as a result of screening prevents eight out of 10 cervical cancers from developing, and saves around 5,000 lives in the UK every year. However, uptake of screening is on a downward trend in Scotland, with the latest figures showing just under 70% of eligible women attending a test, compared to 80% a decade previously.

'More effective test'

The new tests, which were approved for the NHS in England after a successful trial in 2016, follow recommendations from the UK National Screening Committee and will be given to all women aged between 25 and 64 who are offered a smear test.

Having HPV will not always cause cancer, but the virus contributes to virtually all cases of cervical cancer. However, up until now a test for it has only been done if doctors noticed abnormal cells in the smear sample.

Anyone who has ever been sexually active is at risk of catching HPV. A campaign to vaccinate girls against it has led to a dramatic decrease in reported cases, with scientists hoping this would then lead to a reduction in future cervical cancer cases.

Image source, SPL
Image caption, Cervical screening saves about 5,000 lives in the UK every year

Robert Music, chief executive of Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust, said that HPV testing had been shown to provide a more reliable indicator of women at risk of cancer than the current screening system.

He said: "It is positive to see the NHS in Scotland following advice from the UKNSC and changing to this more effective test which will reduce incidence of cervical cancer in Scotland and save lives.

"We look forward to working with the screening programme to ensure this change is made as smoothly as possible, communicated effectively to the public, and that the workforce in particular is supported to adapt to the changes."

Cancer strategy

Cancer Research UK's Gregor McNie said it was a "huge step forward" that the Scottish government was embracing the HPV test.

He said: "Testing first for the human papilloma virus will help prevent more cervical cancers, as it can pick up the cancer-causing infection before any abnormalities could develop in the cells.

"The need for improvements to the cervical screening programme was set out in the Scottish government's cancer strategy published last year, so it's good to see progress being made."

Ms Robison added: "Cervical screening is an important health service that can reduce cases of cervical cancer and death. We must continue to invest in more accurate and accessible tests.

"I am pleased to announce that investment from our cancer strategy will be used to introduce this new test, which will help ensure the early signs of cervical cancer are identified and treated earlier."

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