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Cervical cancer awareness is Jade's legacy

Published on 31/03/09 at 07:49am

Jade Goody has left a legacy of hugely increased awareness of cervical cancer in the UK, following her death from the disease last month.

The 27-year-old reality TV star fought the disease in the media spotlight, and in so doing helped increase awareness of the relatively unknown and misunderstood cancer.

NHS screening programmes said some laboratories are reporting a 20-50% increase in demand for smear tests.

The UK's cervical screening programme has been hugely successful, bringing down death rates from cervical cancer by 70% over the past 30 years.

The increased awareness is also expected to help the uptake of the cervical cancer vaccine in girls aged 12-13 and in a second 'catch up' group in the 17-18 years age group.

The national programme, which uses GSK's Cervarix was launched in September last year for the first time, and blocks strains of the virus which causes most cases of the disease.

The so-called 'Jade Goody' effect is particularly welcome as campaigners as the uptake in smear tests has been falling in recent years - especially in the younger 25-35 age group.

Now a leading sexual health charity is calling for earlier screening for women in England.

Currently screening begins at age 20 for women in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but women in England are not invited for a smear test until they are 25.

Marie Stopes International says this should now be brought into line with the rest of the country.

"The recent high profile case of Jade Goody shows that this disease, whilst extremely rare among women under 30 is nevertheless a potential threat," said Liz Davies, Marie Stopes' Director of UK and Europe.

"Certain lifestyle choices which are increasingly common among younger women and teenage girls, such as smoking and having unprotected sex from an early age, can increase the risk of developing cervical abnormalities."

"Bringing screening for English women into line with the rest of the UK, can only prove to be a beneficial move."

The Department of Health says it will review whether or not to lower the age for cervical screening to start in England.

Until 2003, the NHS in England had invited women for testing at age 20, but this was raised to 25 after research suggested a negative effect.

Some experts say although women in their early 20s may have detectable changes in their cells, these are mostly natural and clear up on their own. Also, treating this can lead to complications in later life, such as difficulties in carrying a baby in the womb during pregnancy.

Marie Stopes says that, ironically, the new vaccination programme makes the case for this ever more pressing.

"The vaccination only protects against certain forms of the HPV virus, which is the major cause of cervical cancer," said Ms Davies. "Our fear is that young girls who are being vaccinated now may think they are completely protected, which simply is not the case. It makes sense to start them thinking about their cervical health as early as possible, and universal screening from the age of 20 is a key strategy in achieving that."

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