The cervical screening programme has saved Britain from an epidemic of cervical cancer.
Experts believe that 15 years ago the country was heading for a devastating outbreak of the disease that had the potential to kill around 100,000 women who were born between 1951-70.
Cancer Research UK scientists estimate in a report1 published today that systematic cervical screening, introduced in 1988, is preventing up to 5,000 deaths a year from the disease in Britain.
Scientists examined trends in the cervical cancer death-rate, which increased threefold from 1967 to 1987 in women aged under 35. Since the national screening programme began in 1988 the trend has been reversed.
Professor Julian Peto, who led the study for Cancer Research UK and is based at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and The Institute of Cancer Research, says that changes in sexual behaviour since the 1960s led to epidemic levels of sexually transmitted diseases.
This in turn meant that HPV (human papillomavirus) infection became increasingly common among sexually active women. Some forms of the virus only cause genital warts, but others cause cervical cancer. Up to half of the young women in Britain have been infected with a high-risk strain of HPV by the time they are 30. (See Notes to Editors)
Prof Peto, says: “The cervical screening programme will prevent about 5,000 future deaths each year in Britain at a cost per life saved of less than £40,000, or about £2,000 per year of extra life.
“Despite occasional but widely publicised failures the British cervical screening programme is already remarkably successful and is still improving.”
Prof Peto’s research compared falling death rates from cervical cancer since 1988 against the projected increase if screening had not been introduced.
The researchers also compared data from other countries. Before the screening programme was introduced, the death rate from cervical cancer among British women aged under 35 was among the highest in the developed world. Only Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania had higher rates than the UK.
Julietta Patnick, Director of the NHS Cancer Screening Programmes, says: “I am delighted that these findings recognise the huge contribution that the cervical screening programme has made to saving women’s lives.
“We work hard to set the highest standards to ensure that women can access our world leading, high quality cervical screening programme. As this research shows, regular screening is one of the best defences against cervical cancer and so I urge all women to attend when invited.”
Professor Robert Souhami, Director of Policy and Communication at Cancer Research UK, says: “Although HPV infection affects many young women, regular cervical screening is able to pick up abnormalities and treat them quickly before cancer develops.
“This new study adds to the volume of work that shows how effective national screening programmes have been and continue to be in the detection and consequent early treatment of cancer.”
Peto J, et al. (2004). The cervical cancer epidemic that screening has prevented in the UK The Lancet, 364 (9430), 249-256 DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(04)16674-9
Around 3,000 new cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed in the UK each year. It can affect women of any age who are, or once were, sexually active.
Scientists have linked nearly all cases of cervical cancer to human papillomavirus or HPV. Most sexually active women will be infected with HPV at some point as it is very common but the virus usually clears up on its own.
If HPV persists it can lead to changes in the cells of the cervix which may lead to cancer if left untreated. Cervical screening detects these early changes and the abnormal cells can then be removed thereby preventing cancer developing.
Download a leaflet about reducing your risk of getting cervical cancer.