Cervical cancer screening in Northern Ireland falls short

NEW figures reveal that the number of women screened for cervical cancer in Northern Ireland falls well below target levels.

Only 72 per cent of women within the target age group in the Province had a cervical smear test in the five-year period up to 31 March 2003 – contrasting with higher figures for England, Scotland and Wales. NHS targets for cervical screening call for a minimum of 80 per cent of Northern Ireland women aged between 20 and 65 to be screened every five years.

Cancer Research N. Ireland today urges women in the Province to take up the opportunity to be screened for cervical cancer when they receive an invitation, as screening is the best available way for women to prevent cervical cancer developing.

Each year around 90 women in Northern Ireland are diagnosed with cervical cancer and about 30 die of the disease.

But cases of cervical cancer have fallen since cervical screening programmes were introduced in the mid-1960s.

Dr Sarah McKenna, Medical Oncologist at the Belfast City Hospital, says:

"Cervical screening saves thousands of lives every year across the UK. Doctors recommend that every woman between the ages of 20 and 65 in Northern Ireland have a smear test at least every 5 years.

"A positive result from a smear test doesn't mean you have cancer. The test is important because it can pick up pre-cancerous changes in the cervix and gives doctors the opportunity to prevent cervical cancer occurring.

"The pre-cancerous changes the smear test picks up don't cause any symptoms, so regular screening is the only chance doctors have to detect them."

The new figures show that considerably less women are screened for cervical cancer in Northern Ireland than in other regions of the UK.

Coverage – which is the proportion of women of target age who have had a cervical smear in the last five years – was 72 per cent for Northern Ireland in the most recent five-year period for which statistics are available.

This contrasts with coverage figures of 86 per cent in Scotland, 81 per cent in England and 78 per cent in Wales (see footnote 4) for women within the target age range in each country.

Coverage for cervical screening varies regionally within Northern Ireland. Coverage was highest in the Northern Board at 77 per cent, and lowest in the Western and Eastern Boards at 69 per cent. The Southern Board had coverage of 74 per cent.

Sister Ruth Boyd, a Cancer Research N. Ireland Senior Research Nurse says:

"All women within the recommended age group receive a regular invitation to go for cervical screening. I would urge women in the Province take up the offer – it's a decision that could save their lives.

"It is understandable that many women are anxious about the smear test procedure or are worried about what the result could tell them. But I would reassure them that they will be seen by doctors and nurses who have long experience in talking women through the process and are sensitive to women's concerns."

"If you didn't respond to an invitation to attend cervical screening in the past, you don't need to wait for the next one to have a smear test. You can contact your GP at any time to arrange one. The test is free."

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