Cervical Cancer Prevention Week message says attend for screening when invited
This Cervical Cancer Prevention Week (22–28 January), the Public Health Agency (PHA) is reminding women of the importance of attending for cervical screening when invited.
This comes after the Northern Ireland Cervical Screening Programme introduced full primary HPV screening into the cervical screening pathway in December, which will increase the ability to detect early cell changes that could lead to cancer
Dr Tracy Owen, Deputy Director of Public Health at the PHA, said: “Cervical cancer is one of the few cancers that can be prevented thanks to screening, so it is really important to attend for cervical screening when invited. It could save your life.”
Between 2016 and 2020 in Northern Ireland there was an average of 81 people diagnosed with cervical cancer each year and around 21 deaths per year.
Nearly all cervical cancers are caused by persistent infection with human papillomavirus, known as HPV.
Dr Owen added: “HPV is a very common virus – about 8 out of 10 people catch it at some time in their lives. After you attend for screening, your sample will be checked for high-risk types of HPV in the first instance and if the virus is found to be present, the sample will then go for further examination.
“Testing for HPV is a more accurate and effective way to identify women at risk of cell changes that could go on to develop into cancer if left untreated. This model is also enabling results to be delivered for women much more quickly.”
Cervical screening, as with all screening programmes, doesn’t guarantee that cancer will not develop in the future, although it significantly reduces the chance.
A cancer could develop between screening tests, and there is a small chance that the screening test misses some changes in the cervix.
“As well as attending screening appointments, we would also urge people to familiarise themselves with the signs and symptoms of cervical cancer.
“This includes vaginal bleeding after sex, between periods or after the menopause; vaginal discharge that is not normal for you; persistent back or tummy pains; and/ or pain during sex,” Dr Owen said.
“You may feel worried if you do notice any of these symptoms, but it’s important to be checked by a GP if you do. If you feel something isn’t normal at any time, contact your GP.
“The other important way of helping to protect against future cervical cancer is through the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine which is offered to all girls and boys in Year 9 in school.
“The HPV vaccine helps protect against two types of the virus that cause most cases of cervical cancer.
“If you have been eligible for the vaccine but have not received it in school, you can still receive it free of charge until the age of 25. You can find out if you are eligible by contacting your GP.”
Please see the following websites for further information.
- PHA site: www.pha.site/CervicalScreening1
- NI Direct – Cervical Screening: www.nidirect.gov.uk/articles/cervical-screening
- NI Direct – human papillomavirus (HPV): www.nidirect.gov.uk/conditions/human-papillomavirus-hpv
- Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust: www.jostrust.org.uk/
- Find out more about the change to primary HPV testing by watching the following animation – www.vimeo.com/892265209?share=copy
Background Info On Screening and Cervical Cancer etc
What is cervical screening
Cervical screening involves taking a sample of cells from your cervix for testing. It is also known as a smear test.
The sample is checked for high-risk types of HPV that can cause cell changes. If high-risk HPV is found, your sample will be checked for cell changes under a microscope.
The test itself only takes a couple of minutes and is usually carried out by a nurse who will explain exactly what happens and make sure you feel comfortable throughout.
Most types of cervical cancer take a long time to develop. By finding cell changes early, screening can prevent cervical cancer from developing.
Women and people with a cervix aged between 25 and 49 years old are routinely invited for cervical screening every three years, or every five years for those between 50 and 64.
What is HPV
Almost all cases of cervical cancer are caused by a virus called human papillomavirus (HPV). This is a very common virus – about 8 out of 10 people catch it at some time in their lives. T
The virus usually causes no symptoms and is mainly spread by skin-to-skin contact during sexual activity.
In most cases, the body’s immune system will clear the virus and it doesn’t cause any problems, but in some people the virus can stay in the body for many years
HPV is generally spread by skin-to-skin contact. For HPV in the cervix, this is through sexual contact with a person of any gender. This can be by having vaginal, anal or oral sex, genital touching or sharing sex toys.
Only certain types of HPV can cause cervical cancer. These are called high-risk types. The types of HPV that cause cervical cancer do not have any symptoms.
Having HPV does not necessarily lead to cell changes or cancer. In around 9 out of 10 people, their body will clear the infection naturally within two years.
However, in a small number of cases HPV in the cervix can develop into a persistent infection. Persistent infection with high-risk HPV can cause the cells on your cervix to change, and these changes can develop into cervical cancer.
HPV testing was already in place as part of an interim model introduced in March 2023 to manage a backlog and delay in cervical screening results coming back. This model also included a further examination under a microscope, known as cytology.
Now (since December 2023), all new samples are sent for primary HPV testing. Nearly all cervical cancers (99.7%) are thought to be linked to persistent infection with high risk HPV.
This approach is in line with the recommendations of the UK National Screening Committee as an HPV test has been shown to be better than cytology at identifying those most likely to have cervical cell changes which could develop into cancer.
Most people will not have HPV (meaning their result is negative), which means their risk of getting cervical cancer is very low, so they do not need any further tests to check for abnormal cell changes in the cervix.
They will be invited for another routine screening test in three years’ time if they are aged 25 – 49, or five years’ time if aged 50 – 64.
If high-risk HPV is found, the sample will be checked for cell changes under a microscope.
If no cell changes are found, the individual will be invited for another test in 12 months’ time. If cell changes are found, the person will be referred for colposcopy – a closer examination of the cervix.
Women and people with a cervix aged between 25 and 49 years old are routinely invited for cervical screening every three years, or every five years for women between 50 and 64.