There’s now an alternative to booking a smear test and enduring the dreaded speculum, but it doesn’t come cheap...

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Smear tests. They’re about as enjoyable as they sound. Cold speculums and overexposure aside though, they’re a crucial health test for any woman between the ages of 25-64. Carried out on the NHS every three years between the ages of 25-49 (cervical cancer is the most common cancer in women under the age of 35), and every five years from 50-64, a smear test can detect abnormal changes in cervix cells. Regular screening and early detection of abnormalities, followed up by treatment and monitoring, is thought to prevent up to 75% of cervical cancers. According to Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust , 3064 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year in the UK, with 2-3 women dying from the disease in this country each day, yet despite these stats and the UK wide awareness raised by women such as Jade Goody, one million of us miss our smear test appointments every year. If you’re one of the million, or if smear tests make you feel extremely uncomfortable, a ‘self-sampling’ option could be the answer.

Target 100,000  is a campaign launched today by  GynaeHealth UK  that aims to increase the number of women being screened for cervical cancer by 100,000, through not only promoting cervical screening in the public arena, but also by offering women an at-home testing option.  GynaeCheck  is a self-sampling device that has been developed by gynaecologists to detect the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), which is the underlying cause of 99.7% of cervical cancers. It requires no training, and no scary speculums; you simply insert the screening tool into the vagina, following simple instructions to collect cells from the cervix before returning your sample in a test tube to GynaeHealth UK, who will test it for high-risk strains of HPV that are known to cause cervical cancer. You’ll receive your results within 10 days, along with advice regarding possible future investigations required and a personal risk assessment, which also takes into account information provided by you in an initial questionnaire that focuses on your health, lifestyle and family history.

GynaeCheck is only available to women over the age of 25, in line with the  National Screening Programme , as women under this age are likely to test positive for high-risk viruses that are most often cleared efficiently by the body. Unnecessary treatment in this case could cause more problems than it solves.

In cases where there are barriers to attending screening, a self-testing option such as this could indeed improve survival rates amongst women. If you find yourself skipping smears due to inconvenient appointment times, embarrassment, discomfort or other personal reasons, it could be a life-saving tool. In the Netherlands it will soon be offered to women who’ve missed smear appointments, but given that it currently retails here in the UK at £129, it’s without doubt a costly option to the traditional trip to see the nurse. You’ll also need to screen with GynaeCheck every two years as opposed to three or five for a smear test on the NHS, which while still more convenient, adds to your expenditure. Additionally, if you’re squeamish about having a smear test, it’s possible that you’re hesitant about self-testing too, so whether or not this is a viable solution is up for debate.

GynaeCheck is not yet affiliated with the National Screening Programme, which since its initiation in the 1980s has seen deaths from cervical cancer halved in the UK, so anything that stops women taking part in the proven scheme could be problematic. Another issue highlighted by a GP friend I spoke with is what the process is should a positive result occur. A GP would most probably have to intervene in the process at a halfway stage, thus transferring the responsibility back to the NHS, without the NHS having the full story or having the patient ‘in the system’ so to speak, which in turn puts further strain on our health service. The ideal situation would be if this kind of test was to be offered by the NHS in time, as Chief Executive of Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, Robert Music, highlights:

“It's vital that women attend their free NHS cervical screening when invited as this is the best way to reduce the risk of cervical cancer. For those who find it daunting, there have been some positive results from small HPV self-testing trials and we are now calling for larger trials which, if positive, we hope will be implemented by the NHS in the future.”

For the time being, we say watch this space, but additional testing in conjunction with the National Screening Programme could be of benefit, if you can afford it…

Would you ‘self-test’ instead of attending a smear test appointment? We’d love to hear your thoughts below.

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