Around three million women across England have not had a smear test for at least three-and-a-half-years, new data suggests, despite cervical screening being recommended for women over the age of 25 every three years.
Cervical screening (previously known as the smear test), is used to detect abnormal cells in the cervix that can develop into cervical cancer. These abnormal cells are almost always caused by the human papillomavirus, or HPV – a common infection transferred by skin-to-skin contact.
Screening rates are at their lowest for two decades: 72 per cent of women aged 25-64 have had a smear test within the recommended time period, according to figures compiled in March 2017, down from 75.4 per cent in 2012.
Public Health England told the BBC it was “concerned” by the fall, so if you’re not currently up to date, we’ve busted the myths that might be holding you back.
You Can Still Get HPV If You’ve Had The HPV Vaccine.
According to Cancer Research UK, virtually all cases of cervical cancer are caused by the human papillomavirus, or HPV. There are hundreds of different types of HPV and eight out of 10 people will be infected with HPV during their lifetime, most with no obvious symptoms. However, 13 strains of HPV are known to be linked to cancer.
Since 2008, girls aged 11-13 have been offered a vaccination in school against the two most common “high-risk” types of HPV, HPV16 and HPV18, which are thought to cause seven in 10 instances of cervical cancer. However, attending your smear test every year is still important if you’ve had the vaccine, because you will not be protected against all strains of HPV and can therefore still develop cervical cancer.
What’s more, although the HPV vaccine does appear to protect against HPV16 and HPV18, it is a relatively new vaccination. Harley Street Gynaecologist Dr Ahmed Ismail previously told HuffPost UK we won’t know for definite how effective it is for 20 years.
Smear Tests Are Nothing To Be Embarrassed About.
More than a third (34 per cent) of women avoid cervical screening because they’re worried about the appearance of their vulvas, according to research released earlier this year by Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust. A total of 31 percent surveyed also admitted they wouldn’t go if they hadn’t waxed or shaved their bikini area while 38 per cent avoided going over concerns about their vagina’s smell.
But in reality, nurses see so many nether regions over a career they won’t remember one from the other. Jilly Goodfellow, senior sister and nurse practitioner at the Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, previously told HuffPost UK: “The majority of sample takers are female nurses who fully understand what it is like to expose the most intimate part of their body to a complete stranger.”
Still not convinced? Read out no-holds-barred guide on getting your smear, from what to wear to whether you should shave your pubes.
Women Who Have Sex With Women Still Need Smear Tests.
Lesbian, bisexual and other women who have sex with women are incorrectly being told they do not need to attend smear tests, LGBT+ charities warned last year.
Research highlighted by the National LGB&T Partnership – an alliance of LGBT+ charities – revealed 37 per cent of women who have sex with women have been told they do not require a cervical screening test due to their sexual orientation. This resulted in over half disengaging from screening programmes, believing they were not at risk.
In reality, HPV is passed on through intimate skin-to-skin contact, which includes sex between two women.
One Clear Smear Test Doesn’t Mean You’re Done.
According to the NHS, most HPV infections don’t cause any serious harm and are cleared by your immune system within two years. However, if you’ve had one smear test with no abnormal cells detected, it’s still important to attend your next appointment three years laters.
While the vast majority of cervical cancer cases are linked to HPV (contracted via sex or intimate skin-to-skin contact) some rare cervical cancers do not show signs of HPV, meaning you can still develop abnormal cells if you’ve had the same partner, and no new exposure to HPV.
A smear test will give your doctor or nurse the best possible chance of noticing any changes in your cervix that could be a precursor of cancer and referring you for relevant treatment. Like all cancers, patients have a higher chance of surviving cervical cancer the earlier it is detected and treated.