Women should be given home-testing kits as soon as possible for the virus that causes 99% of cervical cancer, a charity has said.
Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust said the NHS should roll out home-testing for the human papillomavirus (HPV) in a bid to diagnose more women with the disease at an earlier stage.
The charity made the call on the 10th anniversary of the death from cervical cancer of reality TV star Jade Goody at the age of 27.
On Wednesday, health bosses said they would pilot “self-sample” tests through the post in some parts of England.
Speaking to the Public Accounts Committee, the Government’s former cancer tsar, Professor Sir Mike Richards, said self-testing has “great promise”.
Figures show that in the months after Goody died in March 2009, about half a million extra women attended smear tests – known as the “Jade Goody effect”.
But since then, screening rates have been falling and the latest data shows that, as of the end of March last year, the percentage of eligible women screened adequately was just 71.4%.
Among younger women, screening rates are even 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 Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, said self-testing could help reverse some of the decline by allowing women to use the kits in the comfort of their own home.
“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.
HPV is an extremely common virus which is often spread through sexual intercourse and skin-to-skin contact of the genital areas.
If a woman is positive for HPV, her doctor can then arrange further tests.
Mr Music said Goody’s death had had an enormous impact on boosting screening rates but renewed action was now needed.
He said: “I joined Jo’s just after Jade’s diagnosis and saw first-hand the enormous impact of her story, including her sad and very young death.
“Nationally, we saw an extraordinary rise in women attending cervical screening, with hundreds of thousands extra booking their test.
“As a result, we saw many cancers being prevented as well as cancers detected at an earlier stage, resulting in less invasive treatments and better outcomes. Jade unequivocally saved lives.
“It is now saddening and concerning that the impact she had is very much forgotten and cervical screening attendance is lower than ever.
“We know cervical cancer can one day be eliminated but to make this a reality we must focus on improving access to the test and adopt innovations such as HPV testing at home.”
Research from the charity suggests that more than a third of young women put off going for smear tests due to embarrassment.
Other factors include a low perception of risk, fear, leading a busy lifestyle and simply forgetting appointments.
Mr Music said mothers have a role to play in raising awareness by talking to their daughters about screening.
He said: “It’s important to normalise screening and reduce stigma and misconceptions around it.
“Mothers can play a big role in this by talking to their daughters about the test; however, we know everyone’s experience of screening is different and some women may feel less able to do this.
“Universities, schools, workplaces and businesses can all play a part in raising awareness of the test too.”
While some women dislike the term “smear test” and prefer “cervical screening”, it is important to continue to use both terms, Mr Music said.
“Cervical screening is the medical term for the test; however, many people may not be familiar with it so we also talk about smear tests to ensure we aren’t adding additional barriers,” he said.
All women aged 25 to 64 are offered cervical screening to check for abnormal cells in the cervix. These samples are now first being tested for HPV.
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, was not available for interview, but said in a statement: “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.”
More than 3,000 women in the UK are newly-diagnosed with cervical cancer each year in the UK and the disease kills over 850 women annually.