A quarter of a million women worldwide will have died of cervical cancer by the time 2011 draws to a close. That's roughly one death every two minutes. Of those, around 900 are British women - and sadly, many of these deaths could have been prevented by a simple cervical screening.
The NHS offers cervical screening tests every three years for women aged 25 and above. After reality TV star Jade Goody died in March 2009 (aged 27) from cervical cancer, 12% more British women registered for Pap tests. However, there are still a great many British women who are poorly informed about cervical screening. I was prompted to write this article after a friend told me that she's "terrified" of getting a Pap test. I was shocked. When I moved to Germany aged 21, my German friends were surprised that I'd never been to a gynaecologist. In the UK, birth control is easy to get - it's simply handed out by GPs. It seems that there's such a problem with teenage pregnancies, your sexual health becomes a secondary factor - doctors are predominately concerned with preventing young women from getting pregnant. In order to get birth control in Germany, it's standard to have a Pap test - and we're also offered annual ultrasounds.
Now, it's old hat to pop to the gynaecologist for a biannual check-up and Pap smear. It doesn't hurt; it takes 10 minutes out of my day and leaves me with peace of mind. Having spoken to other nervous Brits, it really does seem that there's a clear lack of awareness regarding cervical screenings. I may be on a personal crusade here, but it startled me to read that something offered for free on the NHS is being ignored by over 20% of women - mostly due to lack of information.
I spoke to an Australian friend, who visits a sexual health clinic or her GP every two years for a Pap test (as per Australian health recommendations) and suggested that the British unwillingness to discuss our bodies is perhaps the reason for an lack of knowledge: "I suppose it's safe to say that Aussies are a bit less prudish than Brits or even Americans on these 'womanly' issues". Is that it? Are we Brits really so embarrassed when it comes to talking about our bodies?
In summer 2011, it was revealed that around a fifth of all women decline a cervical screening. Another survey revealed that 34% of those who declined fear that it is a painful experience and an alarmingly high percentage (21%) assumed that there would be nothing wrong with them. Yes, no one likes having a Pap test, but it's most certainly not painful (at the very most it's slightly uncomfortable for a few seconds) and any discomfort is surely worth knowing that you're in good health or can be treated in time.
Earlier this year, a British friend received some abnormal results from her cervical screening and had go back for further tests - thankfully everything is fine, but she emphasised that the experience has made her "push the importance with friends who avoided going".
Around 88% of women with cervical cancer are from developing countries. Bolivia has an astonishingly high rate of cervical cancer, and it's the most frequent cancer among women in the country. The population of Bolivia stands at 2.89 million - and each year around 640 women die from the cancer. Thankfully, some charities, including The Odysseus Foundation, headed by Huffington Post contributor Justen Schafer Hues, are helping to buck the trend in developing countries. And if you're lucky enough to live in a country where cervical screening is offered for free, there's really no excuse. Around 4 200 lives are saved each year thanks to Pap tests and this is a figure that could rise so easily.
What can be done to educate and increase awareness of the importance of cervical smears? Sitting naked from the waist down with legs akimbo is no party, I'll agree - but are we really so prim and priggish that our health is less important than a few seconds of slight embarrassment? As my mother said - enough women spend hours in labour in a similar position, how is this any less embarrassing than a quick swab? We women need to talk openly about our cervixes. We need to educate our daughters and talk with friends- only through open discussion can we dispel rumours about screenings being painful or unnecessary. We should be distributing leaflets like this in university halls of residence, in community centres, in youth clubs - not merely slipped in with a reminder letter that's so often tossed into the recycling bin.
Our GPs shouldn't just be handing out birth control after a quick blood pressure test; they should be informing women about cervical cancer risks. As women, we have the power to change these figures, and the answer is simple. British women simply need to talk to each other.