There are over 28 million women over the age of 15 in the UK who are at risk of developing cervical cancer. It is estimated that every year over 3700 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer and over 1100 die from the disease. It is the 2nd most frequent cancer among women between 15 and 44 years old.
About 99.7% of cervical cancer cases are caused by specific types of a virus called Human Papillomavirus (HPV). These types are known as “high-risk HPV types”. Nearly 80% of invasive cervical cancers are a result of HPV type 16 or 18. HPV is extremely common and is transmitted by any skin-to-skin contact of the genital area and vaginal sex. Most people will have an HPV infection at some point in their life, with the majority of infections cleared naturally by the immune system. Persistent infection of a high-risk HPV type may cause cervical cancer. Infections can also come and go. An HPV infection is not a sign of sexual behaviour and should not be viewed that way.
There are currently two vaccines against HPV infection available; one comprising of HPV types 16 and 18, and the other covering HPV types 6 and 11 (associated with genital warts), 16 and 18. Routine vaccination of girls and boys between the ages of 12 and 13 years old was introduced in 2008. With the impact of HPV vaccination still being difficult to ascertain as the oldest routinely HPV-vaccinated women in the UK are only in their late 20’s, HPV screening remains imperative for the majority of women.
HPV testing in the prevention of cervical cancer is clinically valuable and more sensitive than cytology (known as Cervical Smear testing). Cytology tests only look at the cells present in the sample and how they appear. Do they look normal under a microscope or do they need further investigation. Abnormal cells can be a result of a harmless infection such as candida (thrush) for example, but would require a recall back to the clinic for further potentially unnecessary investigation.
HPV testing on the NHS requires a woman to attend a clinic appointment with their GP or nurse and the sample is taken from the cervix at the same time the smear test is conducted and can be a little uncomfortable. HPV screening is offered every 3 years for women between 25 and 49 years and every 5 years for those aged 50 to 64 years old. HPV tests and smear tests can also be carried out separately, but usually by a Healthcare professional in a clinic.
Available screening methods
Liquid-based cytology (LBC)
HPV PCR and/or Cytology
HPV PCR only
Getting an appointment with an NHS facility is not always that easy. According to The Guardian newspaper in January 2023 “around 4.6m eligible women in England have either never been screened for cervical cancer or have not had their most recent test, NHS England has said.” At the same time, vaccination rates among teenagers are falling. For 2021/22 they were down ~8% compared with the previous academic year.
With half of all cervical cancers occurring among women who have never been screened or who are under screened, there are fears that more women could die from cervical cancer.
As most HPV tests are performed at GP practices, or at sexual health clinics it is not easy for full-time working women, those with childcare commitments, or those with disabilities to attend screening appointments. The advent of validated approved home self-collection kits makes it significantly easier for all women to get access to HPV testing and manage their own cervical health. Sampling is easy to do at home, in discreet privacy. Swabs are then sent in the post to testing laboratories and women get their results in a matter of days. Tests can be performed as and when a woman wants with no need to wait 3 years before having another test.
To take charge of your cervical health in discreet privacy order your self-collection kit click here.