Cervical cancer could eventually be eliminated by improved NHS screening and vaccines, doctors have said.
Hundreds of lives could be saved each year thanks to a more sensitive type of cervical screening, which has recently been rolled out across the health service.
A quarter of the 2,500 new cervical cancer cases in England each year could be prevented with the testing, which sees smear test samples first checked for the human papilloma virus (HPV).
HPV, a common infection spread usually spread through sex or skin-to-skin contact, causes almost all cases of cervical cancer.
Until now, samples have been examined and those that showed possible cell changes were then tested for HPV.
But this has now being switched around, with cells first tested for HPV infection, and only those that have the virus examined for abnormal cells.
This means any sign of infection can be spotted at an earlier stage before cancer goes on to develop.
Research has also shown that the new method picks up far more cases of pre-cancerous lesions than the old one.
Alongside the new screening, all 12 and 13-year-olds in school year eight are offered a vaccine to protect against HPV.
Professor Peter Johnson, national clinical director for cancer, said: “Screening is one of the most effective ways of protecting against cervical cancer and there is no doubt this new way of testing will save lives. It is vitally important that all eligible people attend for their screening appointments, to keep themselves safe.
“Combined with the success of the HPV vaccine for both boys and girls, we hope that cervical cancer can be eliminated altogether by the NHS in England. The chances of surviving cancer are at a record high, but there is always more we can do, as we continue to deliver our Long Term Plan.”
Because cervical cancer often shows no symptoms in the early stages, it is “especially important” that people attend their tests and that those who are eligible get vaccinated against HPV, he added.
Last year only seven in ten of eligible women aged 25 to 64 were screened, with one million not taking up their appointment.
When it came to the jab, 83.8% of girls completed the two-dose HPV vaccination course in 2017/18, up from 83.1% the previous year. Data on boys is not yet available.
Robert Music, of Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, urged women to attend their screening.
He added: “The day that cervical cancer is a disease of the past is one we should be aiming to get to as soon as possible.
“Cervical screening is such an important test, but there are many reasons it can be difficult to attend.
“We must continue to understand and tackle these to ensure as many women benefit from this far more sensitive test and we save as many cancers diagnoses and lives as possible.”
A cervical screening for Joanna Gray, 30, from Manchester, found HPV and abnormal cells.
Having now received the all clear, she is grateful it was caught so early.
“The doctor at the hospital told me that if I’d left this for another three years then it could have been very, very different,” she said.
“I think it’s amazing that smear tests prevent cervical cancer before it even has a chance to begin.”
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