Cervical Cancer (Minimum Age for Screening) Bill

14th October 2009

Brooks Newmark presents a private members' bill that would require the NHS to provide cervical screening for women aged 20 and over.

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): I beg to move,

 

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require NHS bodies in England to provide cervical screening for women aged 20 and over.

The Bill would bring England in line with Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, which all begin screening at the age of 20. Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer in women under 35 in the UK. Every year, more than 2,800 women in Britain are diagnosed with cervical cancer, and every year 1,000 women die from the disease. Thankfully, regular cervical screening can detect and treat early the abnormalities that, if left untreated, could lead to cervical cancer. Since the launch of the NHS cervical screening programme in 1988, early detection and treatment has had an excellent success rate. More than 90 per cent. of screening results come back normal, but for the few whose results do not, the test can, quite simply, make the difference between life and death.

The new human papillomavirus vaccination programme—HPV—was also introduced last year for girls aged between 12 and 15, and this autumn it will be extended up to the age of 18. So, we have a vaccination programme that ends at the age of 18 and a screening programme that begins at the age of 25. That leaves young women between the ages of 18 and 25 caught in a medical limbo, eligible for neither vaccination nor screening.

My Bill seeks to narrow that gap. By making cervical screening available to any woman aged 20 and above, an extra 1.3 million women would have the choice of cervical screening. The support for lowering the screening age to 20 comes from organisations that range from Marie Stopes International and Jo’s Trust to The Sun newspaper, which ran a petition with over 108,000 signatures. In addition, recent polling by Harris for the Metro newspaper showed that 82 per cent. of 16 to 24-year olds in England agree with lowering the screening age.

In 2004, the Government raised the age from which cervical screening can begin from 20 to 25. Their justifications were that cervical cancer is rare in women under 25, that the anxiety and stress of unnecessary investigation and the treatment for abnormal cells is proportionally excessive, and that the age limit is now in line with World Health Organisation recommendations.

Cervical cancer may be rare in women under 25, but it is inexcusable to dismiss the cases that occur as negligible statistics. Unnecessary investigation and treatment when an abnormal test is proved wrong may be stressful, but it is not for the Government to presume to know best what young women want. If a young woman knows the risks associated with treatment, the decision about whether to proceed with screening and any further treatment should, by rights, be hers alone.

Although the Government claim that raising the screening age to 25 brings it into line with World Health Organisation recommendations, the age at which screening can begin varies across the world. Oddly, England has chosen to raise its screening age and be out of step with even its closest neighbours. When England raised its screening age in 2004, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales all kept screening from the age of 20. In America, screening also begins at 20, or within three years of first sexual contact, whichever is earlier. In Australia, screening begins even earlier, at the age of 18. England’s screening age of 25 looks out of step by comparison.

So why do our Government have a blind spot when it comes to this critical health issue? I fear that it may be down to Budget restrictions: this Government’s mismanagement of the country’s finances over the past 12 years has forced them to cut critical health care services—an observation clearly supported by many 16 to 24-year olds in England, according to a recent poll by Harris.

The Government are concerned about funding, yet the numbers attending for cervical screening are actually falling. In 2007-08, a quarter of those invited did not attend. Alarmingly, the biggest drop was in the 25 to 29 age bracket, with attendance numbers falling from 79 per cent. in 1998 to 66 per cent. in 2008. Although I understand that demand for screening may have increased in 2009 due to the Jade Goody effect, we cannot rely on those numbers being sustained.

The Government’s health policy needs to move with the times and be realistic about changing lifestyles. Young women are now more at risk from cervical cancer than ever before, as the contributory causes of unprotected sex and smoking are on the rise. At some point in their lifetimes, 75 per cent. of sexually active men and women come into contact with the HPV virus that causes cervical cancer. With British teenagers now becoming sexually active earlier, the chance of a young woman developing serious cell changes and early-stage cancer before the age of 25 is increasing.

As I mentioned earlier, there is another weapon in the fight against cervical cancer—vaccination. It is not my intention in this speech to examine the rights or wrongs of that vaccination, as my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) has already highlighted that in a previous Adjournment debate. However, the vaccination programme has implications for the Bill that I am proposing today.

I am concerned that some young women could see vaccination as a “silver bullet” solution, leading them to assume that it has protected them from all risk and that there is now no need for them to attend their screening appointment. Screening and vaccination share a common purpose, yet Government policy seems contradictory. Even by their own admission, the Government do not yet know the full risks of the HPV vaccine Cervarix, but nevertheless they are pressing ahead with the programme. Yet the same lack of certainty exists in the risks outlined in the Government’s argument against reducing the screening age to 20. That just does not stack up. One cannot use the same rationale in support of one cervical cancer prevention scheme and in denial of another. What is so frustrating is that there was, until 2004, a good, sound policy in place. The Government requested a further review earlier this year but, unfortunately, they have decided to stick with the latest guidelines.

I hope that the argument that I have presented today will convince the Minister that there is still a strong case to be made for lowering the age of cervical screening back down to 20. With this Bill, we have the opportunity to try and beat one of the deadliest cancers in this country; we must take it. I commend the Bill to the House.

1.55 pm

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