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Call for cervical cancer screening programme to be introduced in Ireland

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by Cancer Research UK | News

16 November 2004

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Death rates from cervical cancer in the Republic of Ireland exceed those in all other regions in Britain and Northern Ireland because there is no national screening programme, claims a new report published in the British Journal of Cancer1.

Researchers from Cork and Belfast studied cervical cancer death rates between 1971 and 2000 in the UK and the Republic of Ireland.

They found that deaths from cervical cancer fell substantially in the UK after the national screening programme was introduced in 1988, whereas in Ireland there has been a steady increase year on year.

Experts say the introduction of a cervical screening programme in the UK has led to a fall in the incidence of the disease and a corresponding drop in deaths. They believe that Ireland must follow the UK and implement an organised population-based screening programme.

By 1993, 83 per cent of 20-59 year-old women in the UK were being screened for cervical cancer on a three or five-yearly basis. However, in Ireland, only nine per cent of the population is covered by a population-based pilot cervical screening project in one health board area.

Researchers found that, since 1988, deaths from cervical cancer in England and Wales dropped by five per cent each year and, in Scotland, by four per cent each year. Northern Ireland also saw a two per cent drop in deaths per year. However, the Republic of Ireland has seen a steady increase of 1.5 per cent every year since 1978.

Dr Anna Gavin, Director of the Northern Ireland Cancer Registry, says: “These results show that the number of deaths from cervical cancer is increasing only in Ireland.

“Some subtypes of the human papilloma virus, which is sexually transmitted, can trigger cervical cancer. The UK and Ireland have both seen increases in sexually transmitted diseases since the 1970s. This caused a corresponding increase in cervical cancer incidence and mortality in Ireland but not in the UK. It’s pretty clear that the introduction of the national screening programme stopped cases of cervical cancer and deaths increasing in the UK.”

Dr Harry Comber, Director of the National Cancer Registry, Republic of Ireland, says: “The results mirror what happened in the Nordic countries in the 1960s and 1970s, when cervical cancer death rates decreased sharply in countries that introduced screening. Norway’s deaths from cervical cancer continued to increase until they introduced a screening programme.”

Dr Lesley Walker, Director of Cancer Information at Cancer Research UK, who own the British Journal of Cancer, says: “Pre-cancerous changes in the cervix caused by HPV infection do not cause any symptoms, which is why it is so important to have regular screening. A population based screening programme for cervical cancer must be introduced in Ireland to reduce cases of the disease and save lives.

“The British cervical screening programme has been remarkably successful at reducing the number of cases and deaths from the disease. Overall, cervical cancer rates in the UK have halved since the national screening programme was introduced.

“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.”


  1. British Journal of Cancer91 (11) Read the report