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Cervical screening for under 25s 'unnecessary'

A national cervical cancer screening programme for women aged under 25 would “do more harm than good”, research presented today shows. 

Research unveiled by charity Cancer Research UK at the National Cancer Conference in Liverpool found that inviting 100,000 women aged 20-24 for a smear test would prevent up to 23 cervical cancers overall.

When they excluded very early stage cancers, where the treatment is often the same as for pre-cancers, routine screening prevented between three and nine invasive cancers from developing. But this would also mean an estimated 3,000 young women would be treated unnecessarily. 

According to the researchers, screening under 25s means many would be treated unnecessarily for changes which would not have caused any harm if they had been left alone. 

And treatment brings side effects which, for a minority of women, include a risk of serious bleeding and increasing the chance of premature birth in later pregnancies.

To prevent one cancer from developing, the NHS would need to perform between 12,500 and 40,000 additional smear tests on women aged 20-24 and treat between 300 and 900 women in that age group, the researchers claim. 

Professor Peter Sasieni, Cancer Research UK's cervical screening expert at Queen Mary University of London, said: “This research quantifies the risks and potential benefits of providing smear tests routinely in women under the age of 25. It seems clear that the risks outweigh the benefits. 

“Decisions about screening programmes and who to invite should be based on careful analysis and it's important to target screening at the right age group for the best possible outcome.” 

In England around 1,900 cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed each year in women aged 25-64. 

Since the cervical screening programme was introduced in 1988, cervical cancer incidence rates in England have dropped by more than 40% from 4,100 cases in 1988 to 2,300 in 2010.