From the economy, to our own social activity, there have been very few areas of life that have been left untouched by the pandemic that has engulfed the globe over the last 12 months. Nobody could have imagined how quickly and dramatically our lives were about to change as we entered the year 2020. However, nearly a year into the start of the pandemic, research is starting to surface which shows that COVID-19 may have had an impact on our areas of our health.
Every year, around 4.6 million women are invited to attend cervical cancer screening, and while rates fluctuate every year, in 2019-2020 before the pandemic hit, 3.20 million women got tested. However, due to the lockdowns and restrictions that we have all had to follow since March 2020, a lot of women have been unable to attend their essential screening appointment. This has left many people asking; what is the impact of coronavirus on cervical cancer screening?
What is cervical cancer screening?
Cervical cancer screening is a regular screening programme that is carried out by the NHS every year, and is intended to detect any abnormalities or changes in the cells in the cervix that, if left untreated, could turn into cervical cancer. Women are encouraged to attend their cervical cancer screening every time they are invited to catch any cancerous cells before they have the chance to develop.
Every day in the UK, two women are diagnosed with cervical cancer, and around 3000 women a year die from this form of cancer. This goes to show how essential this NHS screening programme is to protect the lives of women.
The impact of coronavirus
It is important to mention that attendance rates for cervical cancer screening tests have been declining for some years, pre-pandemic research found that as many as 1 in 4 women did not attend their appointment. While only a decade ago there was a huge increase in the number of women attending their cervical cancer screening because of the high-profile death of reality TV star Jade Goody from cervical cancer. As the ‘Jade Goody effect’ started to wear off amongst the UK female population, before the pandemic in 2019, the number of women going to their cervical screening had already started to drop.
While we can’t yet be sure how much of an impact coronavirus has had on the testing and detection of cervical cancer, rates have been hit considerably by the pandemic. From April 2020 to June 2020, no women in the UK were able to attend their screening appointment as GPs were closed to all but urgent consultations from March 2020.
Even though some testing appointments went ahead from June 2020 onwards, many GP surgeries cancelled and rescheduled appointments for later on in the year. However, this has led to a huge backlog of women waiting for their cervical cancer screening, and scientists have predicted that until the health system can catch up on the backlog in both GP surgeries and laboratories around the UK, the pandemic has caused an increased cancer risk because of the missed screening opportunity.
As restrictions begin to lift many women will be starting to wonder how the delays in getting their own cervical screening tests will affect them and their health. There have been a few discussions amongst politicians and health professionals on how the NHS can catch up on the thousands of cervical cancer screening tests that have been missed during the last 12 months.
This has brought about the trailing of ‘do-it-at-home’ cervical cancer tests for around 31,000 women in London as part of an NHS trial which not only hopes to encourage women to get screened, but also to help with the backlog of missed tests. This trial has been deemed one of the most innovative developments in womens healthcare for decades by some and if successful is expected to increase uptake of cervical screening dramatically.
However, alternatively some women have taken their health into their own hands by seeking out private healthcare for their cervical cancer screenings that have been cancelled or delayed because of the pandemic and subsequent NHS delays.
While it is still too early to know for sure exactly how many women have been affected by not having their cervical cancer screening tests over the last 12 months and the impact this will have. With it prompting the first of its kind home-testing kit trial, it could also have some positive benefits for women’s health as a whole.