Cervical cancer home-test kits could be a 'game-changer'

22 March 2019, 08:16 | Updated: 22 March 2019, 09:30

Women are going to be offered the chance to carry out smear tests in the comfort of their own homes in a drive to reduce the number of women skipping their cervical cancer screenings.

The DIY kits test for human papillomavirus (HPV) - the virus that causes 99% of cervical cancer cases - which is often spread through sexual intercourse and skin-to-skin contact of the genital areas.

They will be sent to women in the post so they can take their own sample and return it to the NHS.

Health bosses said they would pilot the "self-sample" tests in some parts of the country.

The government's former cancer tsar, Professor Sir Mike Richards, told MPs on Wednesday on the Public Accounts Committee the that the home kits had "great promise".

Cervical screenings are free on the NHS for all women aged between 25 and 64.

They can detect the early signs of cervical cancer before the "abnormal cells" become cancerous.

Earlier this month, the government launched its first ever campaign to encourage women to attend their cervical smear tests after it was revealed the number of women attending screenings was at a 20-year low.

NHS figures show that in the months after reality TV star Jade Goody died in March 2009, around half a million extra women attended smear tests - which became known as the "Jade Goody effect".

Since then, screening rates have been falling.

As of the end of March last year, the percentage of eligible women screened adequately declined for a fourth consecutive year to 71.4% - compared with 72.% the previous year.

Among younger women the rates were worse, with just 61.1% of those aged 25 to 29 screened, and 68.8% of those aged 30 to 34.

Robert Music, chief executive of charity Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust, said self-testing could help reverse some of the decline.

"We know from our research that there is a huge appetite for self-testing and want to see it introduced to the NHS screening programme as soon as possible," he said.

"Countries such as Australia and Denmark, who are already offering self-testing, are seeing fantastic results in terms of more women being screened and more cancers being prevented or diagnosed at an early stage.

"For those who find screening difficult for a wide range of psychological and physical reasons, it could be a game-changer."

At present, women can buy HPV kits online, including via the Superdrug Online Doctor Service, but they are not routinely available on the NHS.

Girls aged 12 to 13 are offered a vaccination in school against HPV.

However, one in three girls in some parts of the UK did not have their full vaccination at school against HPV in 2017-18.

Anne Mackie, director of screening at Public Health England, said: "Anything that can be done that helps support more women get safely screened, we welcome.

"This is why we have asked the UK National Screening Committee to consider the merits of HPV home self-testing kits for women.

"Work is also under way between PHE and academics at University College London and King's College London to evaluate the feasibility of using these kits.

"Any women using kits bought at pharmacies should take their results and discuss these with their GP."